More than ever, the objects that accompany us through our days are ones that can listen to us. We have phones. We have video doorbells. We have smart speakers. All of this means we’re choosing, in many ways, to be listened to by our environment. I’m not here — at least, not right now — to pontificate about whether this is a good thing or a bad thing. It goes without saying, probably, that it’s both.
Kimi, director Steven Soderbergh’s recent thriller that was released last month on HBO Max, is a short, tight little dose of paranoia about all of this listening. Zoë Kravitz’s Angela, a tech worker in Seattle whose job is literally to comb through bits of audio recorded by an Alexa-type device called “Kimi,” accidentally happens on a bit of audio of a woman being attacked. Things progress from there in the classic thriller movie kind of way. A small stone ripples out into a big wave; one bit of audio gives way to a wider conspiracy.
If you’re like me, you love this stuff. Movies are the perfect place for these kinds of thought experiments. In a wildly entertaining context, we are asked to think about the ripple effects of the general surveillance we’ve invited into our lives. If you loved Kimi, here are some other classics from the surveillance thriller genre for you to spiral into sometime.
Rear Window (1954)
In many of director Alfred Hitchcock’s best films from the 1950s (Vertigo and North by Northwest are perfect examples), the scares come from suddenly discovering that the world isn’t what you thought. In Rear Window, what’s absolutely terrifying is that it is.
Jimmy Stewart plays a professional photographer stuck in his apartment, recuperating from a broken leg. Inevitably, he looks through the zoom lens of his camera and becomes increasingly obsessed with the lives of his neighbors across the courtyard. Along with his girlfriend, played by the magnificent Grace Kelly, we not-so-reluctantly follow him down the rabbit hole, especially after it becomes clear that there’s something nefarious going on over there. Everything culminates in one shuddering moment when, finally, someone looks back and sees him — and us.
The Conversation (1974)
Kimi is in many ways indebted to this harrowing Francis Ford Coppola film in which a surveillance expert, played by Gene Hackman, hears about a possible murder during a job and has to decide what to do about it.
The Conversation has a lot of fun with the nitty gritty details of audio recording, but it’s ultimately a story about misunderstandings and mishearings. It’s about how impossible it can be to always know what’s really going on. It’s one of the greatest movies of all time, and a perfect example of the way the filmmakers of the ‘70s responded to the Watergate scandal and the paranoia of the moment.
The Parallax View (1974)
In this classic by master of the genre Alan J. Pakula (he’ll show up two more times on this list), a presidential candidate is assassinated, and the powers that be conclude that the killing was the work of a single assassin. Of course, over the next few years, witnesses to the killing start dying, and that’s where a newspaper reporter named Joe Frady, played by Warren Beatty, begins his investigation.
Pakula, alongside the great cinematographer Gordon Willis (who also shot The Godfather, among other classics), makes everything around Frady feel ominous. We’re often looking at the action from above, and the people look small and insignificant to emphasize their ultimate powerlessness. In the end, in true ‘70s fashion, nothing is as it seems.
All the President’s Men (1976)
Another Pakula & Willis collaboration, and written by the legendary screenwriter William Goldman, All the President’s Men is a dramatization of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein’s investigative reporting of the Watergate scandal, coverage that ultimately brought down the presidency of Richard Nixon. Surveillance and paranoia about surveillance are everywhere in this movie as Woodward and Bernstein, played by Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman respectively, do the work of mining sources for the facts.
That atmosphere of paranoia is what makes it possible for a movie that’s really just a deep dive into the work of journalism to be this entertaining. The famous “follow the money” scene between Redford and Hal Holbrook (as “Deep Throat”) is a great example of how a simple conversation can become truly terrifying if you have the right lighting, the right dialogue, and the right mood. After watching this movie, you’ll never quite shake the feeling that someone is listening.
They Live (1988)
This one is more science fiction/action than pure thriller, but it’ll definitely give you the chills. It’s also got some pop culture legs, from Sheperd Fairey’s street art to lists of the best fight scenes ever. John Carpenter directs this wild ride about a drifter (played wonderfully by professional wrestler “Rowdy” Roddy Piper) who shows up in L.A. looking for work and ends up having his eyes opened to the fact that aliens in disguise control everything around us.
It’s all a blast to watch, but as over-the-top as it can be at times, it does leave you thinking about hidden levers of control, and who might be operating them. It takes the creepy feeling of being watched and blows it way out of proportion, to hilarious effect. In the end though, the real lingering feeling is the sense that if we were looking at things through the right lens (or pair of sunglasses), we’d be disturbed by what we saw.
The Pelican Brief (1993)
The last of the movies by Alan J. Pakula on this list, this one stars Julia Roberts as a young law student who tries to unravel the mystery of who killed a pair of United States Supreme Court justices. She has the terrible misfortune of getting it right, and teams up with a journalist, played by Denzel Washington, who helps her evade the seemingly endless list of government operatives who are trying to kill her to keep her quiet.
It’s a claustrophobic experience, made more intense by camera shots at extreme angles that, like those in The Parallax View, make the people involved look small and insignificant. Add to that a repeated pattern of would-be attackers pouncing in public places, and it’s definitely a movie that keeps you on the edge of your seat. The message — that folks in power will often do anything to make a buck — is a common one, but this story has a less doom-and-gloom perspective than the ones from the ‘70s mentioned above. With this one, you can come away feeling like it’s possible for one person to make a big difference.
Enemy of the State (1998)
Gene Hackman gets to play an audio surveillance expert again in this one, calling back to The Conversation. The real star of the show, however, is Will Smith as Bobby Dean, a lawyer who’s mistakenly identified as the prime suspect in the murder of a U.S. Congressman. In a delicious bit of plot intricacy, that congressman (played by screen legend Jason Robards in one of his final few film roles) was assassinated precisely because he was blocking legislation attempting to widen the surveillance power of U.S. intelligence agencies.
Tony Scott’s direction of this movie is incredibly frantic and jumpy, and gives the overwhelming impression that dangerous forces are everywhere, listening and watching. I remember seeing this one in the theater as a kid, and feeling really freaked out at the idea of satellites that could transmit live surveillance footage clearly enough to see me walking down the street. That seems somewhat quaint to me now compared to the idea of inviting listening devices into my own home, but that’s what 25 years of technology will do to you.
The Truman Show (1998)
This one could just as easily be classified as comedy or drama, but I think it deserves a mention on a list of great surveillance thrillers because of the way it dawns on you, as you get further into the movie, that this could be you. Jim Carrey gives an amazing performance as Truman Burbank, a man who thinks he has agency over his own experience — until he begins to realize that he’s the star of a reality TV show that is his entire life.
Slowly, the illusions of Truman’s life are stripped away one by one until, eventually, he tries to escape the limits of his world. It’s all very thrilling, especially in the hands of director Peter Weir, who is excellent at creating an ominous and creepy atmosphere (see: Weir’s 1975 masterpiece Picnic at Hanging Rock). In the end, you might be left wondering who, exactly, is in control of your one, precious life.
Open Windows (2014)
There are, of course, many more movies that could go on this list, but I wanted to shout out this under-seen Nacho Vigalondo film starring Elijah Wood and Sasha Grey. Wood plays Nick, a nerdy fanboy who’s supposedly won a contest to meet his favorite actress, Jill (Grey). Unfortunately for Nick, he’s quickly blackmailed into participating in a terrifying surveillance scam that’s targeting Jill.
I won’t spoil where it goes, and it’s a little bit of a mess along the way, but it makes scary use of the technologies that have become so integral to our lives nowadays: webcams, cell phones, etc. It isn’t a masterpiece by any stretch, but Vigalondo’s movies (Timecrimes and Colossal are two good examples) are big on ideas, and this is an imaginative thriller that will make you think about being a little more deliberate when it comes to inviting technology into your life.