Kalki 2898 AD Review | A Whole Lotta (Familiar) Movie(s)

by Andrew Parker

Kalki 2898 AD, the latest big budget Telugu language blockbuster from India, is massive when it comes to spectacle, but short when it comes to original substance. Writer-director Nag Ashwin’s visually ambitious, but narratively stunted and convoluted crowd pleaser is easy to get swept up in, even when the viewer knows they’ve seen each of its far too many plot elements utilized better in more focused movies. Although there’s a fair bit of cultural specificity to be found within Kalki 2898 AD, this sci-fi epic is clearly casting a wide net in an effort to bring in the widest global audience possible. It’s great at what it does, and as an obvious franchise starter, one could do a lot worse, but Ashwin has also cobbled it together from the spare parts of other films that have come before it. But if all you’re looking for is kinetic fights, shootouts in space, and explosions aplenty, Kalki 2898 AD will give you more and then some.

Set in a distant, dystopian future (as if there are any other kinds in the movies), Kalki 2898 AD finds the Earth a war torn, inhospitable desert planet. All but one major city has fallen due to decay and violence, and the final metropolis left standing is an impenetrable fortress for the rich and famous overseen by the evil Supreme Yaskin (Kamal Hassan) and his troops. Bhairava (Baahubali star Prabhas), a laid back but remarkably efficient bounty hunter, is looking for one big score to buy himself a spot in “The Complex,” as it’s known, and he might’ve found it in the form of tracking down a pregnant woman (Deepika Padukone), who has escaped the clutches of Supreme Yaskin’s shadowy genetic testing lab. Although he has a big heart and somewhat of a conscience, Bhairava puts his misgivings aside for a shot at the good life, but little does he know that the woman is being protected not only by anti-government rebels, but also an immortal warrior (screen legend Amitabh Bachchan) who believes the child she’s carrying is the second coming of God.

Mainstream Indian cinema is well known for crafting knock-offs of other successful films from other countries, but a sprawling work of science fiction on a level like this is a bit of a rarity and an outlier. But beyond that novelty, Ashwin’s work reads completely like every successful sci-fi work of the past few decades has been blended together into an easily digestible smoothie. Kalki 2898 AD has heavy elements that have been taken almost word for word from the likes of Star Wars (a roguish antihero, a cheerful/sarcastic robot assistant voiced wonderfully by Keerthy Suresh, rebels battling an all powerful empire, laser weapons that go pew-pew-pew), Dune (the search for a returning Messiah, people debating if such a thing could even happen), and the Mad Max franchises (lawless arid wastelands where everything, including children and women, have become commodified). There’s a little dash of Blade Runner grime, some subtext straight out of The Handmaid’s Tale, and mythological world building that calls to mind The Matrix and the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Outside of some anti-oil messaging and the inclusion of a lot of strong female characters (something that is often lacking in Indian cinema), Kalki 2898 AD offers viewers nothing new on a narrative level that they haven’t seen or heard before. Even the film’s blending of sci-fi and religion is old hat when one considers that it’s not too huge of a leap between faith and fantasy, which is present in the Dune, Star Wars, and the more recent Mad Max films.

But the core audience for Kalki 2898 AD probably isn’t looking for originality. The appeal is watching big stars dazzle the viewers with their charms and abilities while looking great and sounding as loud as possible. As long as the story can provide something to hold all of this together, the mission has been accomplished. The effortlessly charming and physically capable Prabhas oozes charisma and star power throughout, almost making the viewer want to count the seconds between his appearances during some of Ashwin’s slower scenes of exposition. Bachchan adds a considerable amount of gravitas and weariness, Padukone makes for a compelling and sympathetic heroine worth rooting for, and Saswata Chatterjee is positively magnetic as the villain’s slimy and ruthless henchman. Everyone in Kalki 2898 AD understands the assignment perfectly, and they all look like they’re having a blast playing in Ashwin’s sandbox.

Visually and aurally, Ashwin proves once again that India cinema is fully capable of creating breathtaking action pictures that can compete with their North American and Chinese counterparts when given the proper budget and resources. Opening with a stunning historical battle sequence that looks like a gory fresco painting and only growing more technically ingenious from there, Kalki 2898 AD pulls out all the stops from a directorial and design standpoint. The chase scenes are thrilling, the fights bone-crunching, and locations are lovingly detailed down to the smallest elements. The musical score is effective and eclectic, incorporating synths, strings, and plenty of instruments one wouldn’t expect to be heard in a such a context. The sound of every punch and explosion is calibrated to send to viewer flying through the back wall of the theatre.

It’s almost enough bombast and charm to make the viewer forget for a little while that they’ve literally seen all of this so many times before. That familiarity and adherence to formula makes Kalki 2898 AD sometimes dull to sit through whenever it goes about setting up it’s pieced together mythology. But whenever Ashwin and company ratchet up the tension and action, it’s a joyful and playful cinematic confection that will give most viewers exactly what they paid to see. Unless they’re paying for originality and substance, in which case, it’s best to look somewhere else.

Kalki 2898 AD is now playing in theatres everywhere. Check out the trailer on YouTube.

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