Mumbai: In ‘2.0’, described as the “spiritual successor" to 2010’s ‘Enthiran’/‘Robot’, Dr Vaseegaran (Rajinikanth) is back as the scientist developing artificial intelligence. He works in a state-of-the-art lab with only one co-worker—NILA, an acronym of Nice Intelligent Lovely Assistant, played by Amy Jackson who is perfectly cast as the stiff robot.

A freak event of all the cellphones from Tamil Nadu getting sucked into the troposphere leaves the state authorities flummoxed and the citizens bereft. Days later, a few prominent businessmen and politicians are brutally killed. The phones reappear in menacing, violent ways, mainly as an amorphous entity that begins to wreak fear and havoc.

The home minister (Adil Hussain) now calls on Vaseegaran to intervene and permits the return of the disgraced robot Chitti, who has been dismantled and stuck in a museum. Chitti is rebuilt and put to work. Vaseegaran, Nila and Chitti now proceed to track down the missing mobiles and thereby unravel the mystery behind the Bird Man a.k.a. Pakshi Raja.

One of the strengths of ‘2.0’ is its effort to build in a social message. Ornithologist Pakshirajan (Akshay Kumar) loves birds and it is this fondness that is the basis for a cautionary tale about the harmful side effects of cellular radiation, one of which is the killing of birds. Radiation upsets the fragile ecosystem on which human existence precariously rests.

A broken-hearted Pakshirajan becomes a superhuman creature called Pakshi Raja and takes on the establishment. Till here Shankar’s film was on point. It impressed with its vision, scale and design, and with the power of its motif.

But soon after, ‘2.0’ becomes problematic. The core message of environmental damage is stomped on by multiplying bots and mini-bots that fire guns indiscriminately and use bird life as pawns to influence a favourable outcome in the battle with Pakshi Raja. The “hero" becomes the menace as he fights for killer cellular towers and for the return of radiation.

Vaseegaran activates Chitti versions 2.0 and 3.0—bots with swag and a bad attitude. Rajinikanth does pull off the multiple avatars even if, like many of the other older actors, his interaction with the green screen is clumsy. Akshay Kumar settles into his make up and prosthetics—whether as the ageing, suffering Pakshirajan or as the fierce and frustrated Pakshi Raja—and relishes the role. He’s a fantastic foil to Rajinikanth’s indestructibility.

The Hindi-dubbed version (dialogue by Abbas Tyrewala) is available in 2D and 3D formats. And technically, ‘2.0’ raises the bar for Indian cinema. The visual effects (Srinivas Mohan) are outstanding with the sound design (Resul Pookutty), production design (Muthuraj), cinematography (Nirav Shah) and costume design (Rocky S and Mary Vogt) enhancing the cinematic experience.

A film that pivots around technology and artificial intelligence should have laid as much emphasis on artificial (special effects, computer graphics, robots) as intelligence. But writer-director Shankar’s focus is largely on visually wow-ing the audience. Moments in this ‘superstar’ Rajinikanth vehicle are amazing indeed, but the director takes too long getting to the crux of the story and then, disappointingly, compromises on the message. The result: that like the robots and cell phones that keep running out of battery, at the end of 148 minutes, the viewer too needs recharging.

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