‘Kalki 2898 AD’ review: Padding out weakens Prabhas sci-fi actioner

Nag Ashwin's sci-fi spectacle has some striking imagery but doesn't earn its protracted runtime

Uday Bhatia
First Published27 Jun 2024, 06:14 PM IST
Prabhas in ‘Kalki 2898 AD’
Prabhas in ‘Kalki 2898 AD’

Worldbuilding. Spreader of bloat. Masker of deficiencies. Scourge of the two-hour film. The idea isn’t new, of course; Cecil B DeMille and Fritz Lang were building cinematic worlds a hundred years ago. But increasingly it’s become an excuse for filmmakers with obscene budgets to luxuriate in their pretend worlds, and a burden on viewers who favour propulsive storytelling over ‘immersiveness’. Everyone wants to be Denis Villeneuve when they should be aiming for Ridley Scott.

Kalki 2898 AD is three hours of protracted worldbuilding, the first entry in a planned ‘cinematic universe’. Sometimes it’s stirring genre cinema, at other times it feels padded-out, derivative and dull. It ends like an episode of TV, everything hanging in the balance, all bets hedged. There’s no sense whether we should expect one or five more of these.

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Director Nag Ashwin begins on the battlefield of the Mahabharata, with the defeated Ashwatthama (Amitabh Bachchan) awaiting his death. This is followed by a strange, though well-rendered, title sequence, an animated montage of atrocities through human history (though mostly 20th century events). Then we’re in the year 2898, in Kasi, the world’s only surviving city. The elite live in The Complex, a floating futuristic metropolis; the common folk fight for scraps in a grimy steampunk ghetto. This unhappy world is ruled by the fascist forces of Supreme Yaskin (Kamal Haasan), a 200-year-old being consumed with finding a mysterious serum which can only be extracted from the body of a pregnant woman.

The problem is, fertility has become rare, and soldiers are routinely dispatched to look for suitable candidates, who are imprisoned and ‘seeded’. For the serum to be effective, a pregnancy of at least 150 days is required—a criterion met, after several failures, by SUM80 (Deepika Padukone), later Sumati. Though she can't remember her own mother, Sumati wants her unborn child to live, and so do the rebels who’ve been battling the Complex. There’s a whole lot of Star Wars going on—Supreme Yaskin is Supreme Leader Snoke, his soldiers resemble paratroopers, blasters shoot coloured lights, and there’s even a takedown of a robot that’s like the hobbling of an At-At. Yet, what must’ve tickled Nag most is dubbing his protagonists ‘rebels’, given Prabhas is famously known as ‘rebel star’.

The entry scene is such a staple of south Indian action cinema that its conventions are ripe for subversion. Compared to his ludicrously macho entry in Salaar: Part 1—Ceasefire, Prabhas’ introduction in this film is practically Looney Tunes. No sooner does bounty hunter Bhairava face a group of thugs than he seems to power down, lying in the street and telling his car-droid Bujji (voiced by Keerthy Suresh) that he’d rather not fight. When the brawling starts, it’s soundtracked by semi-classical music. Bhairava retains this jokey-ness through the film, which is helpful when you’re a magnificent fighting machine but are required to be tossed around by 81-year-old Amitabh Bachchan.

After the rebels spirit Sumati out of the Complex, Ashwatthama—ancient but still very powerful—turns up to confirm that the unborn child is even more special than they realise: he will be an incarnation of demigod Karna. The film briefly becomes an amalgam of Fury Road and Children of Men, with Bhairava chasing them across the desert, determined to capture the huge bounty they’ve placed on Sumathi. The first fight between him and Ashwatthama is disappointing, as are most of the combat scenes. Though Nag is working with top fight coordinators in Andy Long and Nick Powell, he can’t convey clearly the physics of his universe. It’s the same problem as Ayan Mukerji and Brahmastra: a director with no background in action put in charge of a monumentally expensive action film.

Nag’s fights aren’t memorable, but he does have a way with CGI imaginings. Despite the boring yellow patina of the film, the image-making is surprisingly innovative: a fortune-telling hologram parrot, a giant statue as elevator, the rough tactility of the droids and vehicles and pods, the sleek soullessness of the women’s prison. Santhosh Narayanan’s score does a lot to flesh out these environments, from a chiming theme reminiscent of Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy to Zimmer-ian sturm und drang.

I watched the Hindi dub of Kalki 2898 AD; I’d intended to see it in Telugu, but the subtitles weren’t working at the theatre. Either option would’ve involved a trade-off as far as dubbing is concerned, with actors from Telugu (Prabhas), Hindi (Amitabh Bachchan, Deepika Padukone), Tamil (Kamal Haasan, Pasupathy), Malayalam (Anna Ben) and Bengali cinema (Saswata Chattterjee). I doubt any version would’ve redeeemed Ashwin and Sai Madhav Burra’s barely functional writing or made the occasional use of Americanized English (“You’re creeping her out”) any less jarring.

For a Telugu film, the violence is dialled down, an indication that Kalki 2898 AD has a family crowd in mind. Perhaps this and other concessions to gaining the widest possible audience—actors from across India, a litany of cameos, a song by Diljit Dosanjh—will pay off. Then again, recent Tamil, Telugu and Kannada films have been hugely successful while retaining their rough edges. Kalki isn't oppressive or absent of charm. But the film it could be is obscured by the film it must be—a launchpad for yet another action franchise.

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First Published:27 Jun 2024, 06:14 PM IST
HomeLoungeart and culture‘Kalki 2898 AD’ review: Padding out weakens Prabhas sci-fi actioner

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