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Does ‘Kimi’ deliver the goods? Thriller aims to capitalize on Alexa, Siri … and Seattle’s tech cachet

Zoë Kravitz portrays a Seattle tech worker in “Kimi.” (Warner Bros. Entertainment Photo / Claudette Barius)
Zoë Kravitz portrays a Seattle tech worker in “Kimi.” (Warner Bros. Entertainment Photo / Claudette Barius)

Once again, Seattle’s tech scene provides the backdrop for a high-profile movie on HBO Max — but this time, it’s serious.

Oscar-winning film director Steven Soderbergh’s tech-noir thriller, “Kimi,” echoes movies like “Rear Window” and “The Conversation” in a tale that also reflects the mind-wrenching isolation forced by the COVID-19 pandemic and the concerns raised by smart devices that are capable of tracking our every move.

Zoë Kravitz portrays an employee at a Seattle tech startup that markets a smart speaker and AI voice assistant called Kimi. The startup is gearing up for an IPO that promises a big payoff, but as Kravitz’s character works through a list of audio files that Kimi couldn’t understand, she happens upon a snippet that suggests a crime was committed. Her efforts to get to the truth spark a classic spy chase with some extra tech twists.

It’s a tale far darker than “Superintelligence,” the 2020 romantic comedy starring Melissa McCarthy as a Seattle techie and James Corden as an AI overlord.

Will “Kimi” stir up a debate over AI voice assistants? Does the movie accurately reflect the Seattle vibe? Will it generate as much buzz as Amazon’s Alexa, or will it flop as hard as the Fire Phone? The early indications are mixed: On the Rotten Tomatoes website, for example, the critical consensus is thumbs-up (90%) while the audience score is an emphatic thumbs-down (55%).

To get the verdict from ground zero, we turned to the experts who helped us sort out the fact, fiction and frivolousness in “Superintelligence”: Carissa Schoenick, director of program management and communication at Seattle’s Allen Institute for Artificial Intelligence; and Kurt Schlosser, GeekWire’s go-to guy for coverage of Seattle’s tech culture.

Here’s the slightly spoiler-y breakdown from Schoenick and Schlosser, with some extra spin provided by yours truly:

Smart speaker … dumb plot?

There are strong echoes of Amazon’s Alexa AI assistant and Apple’s Siri in the squat smart speaker that was designed specifically for “Kimi.” (Soderbergh’s ex-wife, Betsy Brantley, provides the placid feminine voice that’s a prerequisite for smart speakers.)

Screenwriter David Koepp was reportedly inspired to write the script for “Kimi” by a murder case in Arkansas in which prosecutors sought access to audio files that may have been recorded by a suspect’s Amazon Echo device. That case was eventually dismissed due to lack of evidence, but it’s specifically invoked in the movie.

In some of the Seattle scenes, we see flashes of billboards touting Kimi 6.0, but Schoenick was surprised by how basic the speaker’s functions seemed to be. “It was all extremely Home Smart Speaker 101,” she said.

At the beginning of the movie, the CEO of the company that makes Kimi claims that his product is superior to Alexa and Siri because actual humans are employed to make sense of the audio that Kimi can’t figure out. (This is the job that Kravitz’s character has.)

Real-world AI companies would probably dispute the CEO’s claim.

“I’ve heard reports of Amazon using content workers to look at misheard commands and help annotate those, to correct the system,” Schoenick said. “That is absolutely par for the course with AI. Having a human in the loop like that is the way you get annotated data to improve your models.”

Director Steven Soderbergh looks over Zoë Kravitz’s shoulder during the filming of “Kimi.” (Warner Bros. Entertainment Photo / Claudette Barius)
Director Steven Soderbergh looks over Zoë Kravitz’s shoulder during the filming of “Kimi.” (Warner Bros. Entertainment Photo / Claudette Barius)

An ethical company would scrub the audio files to ensure the users’ anonymity. But because this is a movie, the company behind Kimi isn’t bound by real-world rules. “They had a nice, really slick little app for how to spy on their users,” Schoenick said.

The same goes for the other intrusive surveillance methods shown in “Kimi,” including triangulating on cellphone signals and collecting retinal scans of employees without their informed consent.

“It’s a good example of how a tech company could have abused personal data rights by gathering data and hiding that language in their terms and conditions, because the point that nobody reads those is true,” Schoenick said. “That is where regulating the application of AI can be important.”

In contrast to many other tech thrillers, the AI isn’t the bad guy. Instead, the plot relies on old-fashioned human villains who aren’t always as smart as the devices they wield. Without getting too heavily into plot spoilers, Schoenick said the movie’s climactic confrontation strained plausibility.

“No one was doing the thing that they would really do in real life in this situation,” Schoenick said. “Including the bad guys. They seemed very bad at their job.”

Seattle shines … maybe too much?

One of the least plausible aspects of “Kimi” has to do with the idea that Kravitz’s character could actually afford the apartment where most of the action takes place.

“She’s a glorified content moderator,” Schoenick said. “This is a job that crowdsourced folks would be doing in the real world — you know, people in content moderation farms. It wouldn’t support the lifestyle of a single person in a huge loft apartment.”

The Kimi-equipped apartment serves as a fortress for the audio interpreter, whose fear of public places arose after a traumatic experience and was reinforced by COVID-related social distancing. It’s in a neighborhood that looks like Capitol Hill, Pioneer Square or Belltown in Seattle, but is actually in Los Angeles.

Schlosser agreed that the apartment seemed a bit too upscale for the typical Seattle techie, but he said Kravitz’s blue-haired, hoodie-wearing character was in tune with the Pacific Northwest vibe.

“She looked perfectly Seattle to me,” he said. “She had a young and fun, techie look about her, and her apartment was decorated with the requisite music posters and stuff like that.”

There are plenty of exterior scenes showing off the Emerald City — including views of Westlake Park, the Helix Pedestrian Bridge and the city’s light-rail stations. There’s even a homeless protest that brought hundreds of extras to downtown Seattle during last year’s filming.

Zoë Kravitz’s character crosses paths with Seattle protesters in a scene from “Kimi.” (HBO Max / Warner Bros.)
Zoë Kravitz’s character crosses paths with Seattle protesters in a scene from “Kimi.” (HBO Max / Warner Bros.)

Seattle looks good in the movie. Maybe a little too good, Schlosser said. The way he sees it, a tech-noir thriller like “Kimi” could have taken better advantage of the Pacific Northwest’s trademark gloom.

“The sunshine was a little offputting,” he said.

But Schlosser said the mere fact that AI-centric movies like “Superintelligence” and “Kimi” are set in Seattle says something about the city’s status as a tech capital.

“I just think it’s cool in regard to the fact that now moviemakers are leapfrogging Silicon Valley and picturing Seattle as the setting for anything happening in tech — whether it’s badly portrayed, weirdly portrayed, funny, exciting or beautiful to look at,” he said. “Seattle is on the moviemaking minds of these guys who are saying, ‘Where is tech centered?'”

Final grades

AI2’s Carissa Schoenick: “The AI voice assistant Kimi takes a backseat to the psychology and action of the storyline. Kimi isn’t invoked in any surprising ways that aren’t already possible with today’s smart speakers – instead, the tech is a plot device to motivate the agoraphobic main character to face her fears. The notion that humans would be employed to review and correct misheard voice commands is not unrealistic; in fact, human-annotated data is fundamental in developing and improving AI algorithms, and companies like Amazon do this very type of voice command auditing for speech recognition technology. The movie has a slow start and really uneven character development with a bit of an eye-rolling conclusion, but if you’re looking for something short and a little weird, it’s a pretty average watch. Grade: C for technology, and C-minus for watchability.”

Geek Life guru Kurt Schlosser: “I’ve been living through COVID and forced isolation for two years. I didn’t need a movie to trap me inside all of that for two more hours – especially with a smart speaker as my only friend. I want to escape! When ‘Kimi’ does get outside, it’s into a Seattle that is too sunny for a film that is so psychologically gloomy. Grade: C-minus.

Science geek Alan Boyle: “Maybe ‘Kimi’ doesn’t quite measure up to ‘Rear Window,’ but I think anyone who’s a fan of that claustrophobic film genre (which also includes ‘The Woman in the Window’ from last year and a newly released parody, ‘The Woman in the House Across the Street From the Girl in the Window’) will want to check this out. The same goes for folks who get into the issues raised by digital surveillance, or who just want to see if they recognize the Seattle scenery. ‘Kimi’ is the first movie I’ve seen that weaves the COVID-19 pandemic into its plot, and the first movie since ‘Her’ to give a central role to an AI voice assistant. Grade: B.”

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