Steven Soderbergh’s latest thriller will never dominate the cultural conversation, but does that mean it isn’t good?
“Why can’t things just be good? Why do things always have to be the best?” asks Angela (Zoe Kravitz) in Steven Soderbergh’s film Kimi.
Angela is talking about restaurants. But her words are also a kind of justification or apology for Kimi itself—a deliberately small thriller designed to be enjoyed in its moment, rather than to dominate everything everywhere all at once. Angela’s statement is a cranky counterargument to the movies that dominate cultural conversation these days, and a quiet rebuke to critics who claim—with much wailing and gnashing of teeth—that movies like Kimi don’t exist anymore.
Kimi was released in February directly to HBO Max; it didn’t debut in theaters. Soderbergh isn’t bitter, though, about finding himself on the small screen. In fact, he makes constraint the theme of his film.
Kimi is set during the pandemic. It’s a world of masks, interiors, and small spaces, in which going to a food stand is ambitious, and venturing to the movie theater is out of the question. Angela, our protagonist, is agoraphobic, and her condition has been exacerbated by quarantine. When the plot does force her outside, to thwart a tech conspiracy, she moves like a stiff, upright reed, walking swiftly from the shelter of one wall to the next. She’s in a box in your home, because that’s where she wants to be: The big screen is too big to hold her.
She’s in a box in your home, because that’s where she wants to be: The big screen is too big to hold her.
Soderbergh’s ingenious embrace of the low ceiling of streaming stands in stark contrast to the bitterness of some of his fellow directors. Francis Ford Coppola complained that Marvel and other superhero franchises were ruining studio films by forcing them to include the same scenes and sequences. Marvel, he said, is bound to “one prototype movie that is made over and over and over and over and over again to look different.” Director Roland Emmerich agreed, claiming that, “It’s ruining our industry a little bit, because nobody does anything original anymore.”
For Coppola and Emmerich, Marvel is a kind of totalizing, colonizing force, spreading across movie theaters everywhere, turning every film into a replica of another. That’s a plot which—not coincidentally—sounds a lot like the recent run of Marvel films.
Spider-Man: No Way Home, for example, is a movie about the walls between multiple alternate worlds collapsing—which is another way of saying, it’s a film about the walls between multiple films collapsing. Characters and actors from various Spider-Man reboots over the last 20 years show up in cameos, extended over the entire run-time. Coppola complained that the MCU makes one movie over and over, but No Way Home goes a step further, retroactively turning every movie into the same movie. There is only one story on screen. You come back to check in on it, every time you come to the theater.
Films like No Way Home or Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness or Eternals are intentionally huge, Cyclopean canvases. They’re stories about the cosmic all, and they’re meant to be viewed by a cosmic everybody. Each MCU film and product is an advertisement for every other MCU film and product; there’s a constant cultural conversation about what happens next. The movies spread out infinitely. They don’t have any beginning or end, either temporally or spatially. You can’t escape them. Like Thanos or capitalism, the MCU is a totalizing force.
Coppola and Emmerich also have ambitions to make blockbusters that dominate the public consciousness, and they resent being pushed to the margins of the multiverse. That’s reasonable enough. But Angela’s point still stands: Can’t a movie exist without being the biggest movie of all time?
When Coppola or Emmerich complains that all movies look like one movie, they’re talking about big movies—movies that everybody talks about, movies that matter.
If you’re willing to enjoy smaller fare, this is not a bad time for fans of things other than the MCU. Streaming services are perfect for short, focused films with small casts, restricted settings, and contained-as-your-living-room plots.
Netflix’s 2022 Windfall, for example, is a home invasion thriller set in a billionaire’s vacation getaway. There are only ever four people on-screen, and they never travel outside of the house and its grounds. The movie (like Kimi) is about circumscribed lives and circumscribed choices. It would almost lose its element of claustrophobia if you saw it on the big screen.
Rebecca Hall’s Passing, released in 2021, started on the indie film circuit, but it also fits into this comfortably cramped niche. The movie is about a light-skinned Black woman passing as white, and her efforts to reconnect with her childhood friend. The characters find themselves trapped in blind alleys, as black-and-white cinematography suggests jail bars and cages of shadow. Spider-Man jaunts about the multiverse. The characters in Passing risk their lives if they travel a few blocks in the wrong direction.
Movies like Kimi, Windfall, and Passing are designed to get less attention than Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness—the very name of which sprawls across the page. When Coppola or Emmerich complains that all movies look like one movie, they’re talking about big movies—movies that everybody talks about, movies that matter.
There are still big movies that find home in less-traveled multiverses, like Everything Everywhere All At Once, which explores a multiverse outside of corporate comics franchises. But another way that movies can be different from the ‘One Big Movie’ is that they can be smaller. Kimi isn’t part of a mega-franchise, and it isn’t trying to take over the world. If you missed it when it came out, you probably haven’t thought about it much since. But in its own small way, on the small screen, within small parameters, it’s good. Maybe even the best.