'Kalki 2898 AD' movie review: This incredible spectacle needed more compelling storytelling

It’s not a good sign when a film over three hours—despite visual and sound glory—makes you wish every few minutes that it would hurry up to get to the point.
Poster of the movie 'Kalki 2898 AD'
Poster of the movie 'Kalki 2898 AD'

CHENNAI : While watching Kalki 2898 AD, I remember, from time to time, being so enchanted by the world-building and the scale and detail of it all, that nothing else seemed to matter. The neon signs, the rusty structures, the futuristic (decadent?) designs (of Kasi, of guns and ammo, of the vehicles…), the hanging, inverted pyramid, the costumes that speak of conflicting worlds, the suspended villain, the Matrix-like technology that feeds into wombs… I could go on and on.

Prabhas’ Bhairava seems to carry emotional baggage from his past which has convinced him that the only reasonable way to survive in the world is to be selfish and aspire for material joys. He’s got friends with whom he’s exchanging plenty of banter. He’s a cool warrior too who’s great with gadgets. And yet, his fun portions don’t zing with as much entertainment as they should; his brief emotional portions don’t zing with as much pathos as they should. There’s a bit of Rebel Star indulgence around Prabhas’ introduction, which is a strange choice in a serious film built on mythological foundations. If the ambition of the film is to immerse us in a painstakingly created fictional world, why distract us with star-pandering?

Nag Ashwin offers some compensation in the form of casting-related joys. The carousel of cameos keeps us quite engaged, but I wish it were supplemented with narrative joys too. A flashback about Bhairava and his father that’s presented quite seriously results in a character crying—but there’s no real emotion. As Bhairava and Roxie flirt about, it’s supposed to be cutesy romantic entertainment, but it only fuels impatience. It’s not a good sign when a film over three hours—despite visual and sound glory—makes you wish every few minutes that it would hurry up to get to the point. The film’s individual moments are not powerful enough; the writing doesn’t necessarily make us resonate with its characters.

The Ashwathama-Bhairava fight is set up as an important duel. One is immortal, the other is invincible. But some sparring later, you see the pattern. Bhairava captures; Ashwathama breaks out. And as this duel goes on, the repetition begins to grate. Again, the visuals are great to marvel at. Ashwathama is imposing and channels an ancient form of fighting. Bhairava, meanwhile, relies on gadgets. But once these charms wear off, these scenes seem to keep the story from speeding along.

The film, however, provides us with plenty of ideas to chew on. It’s fascinating how Nag Ashwin equates the impending birth of an avatar with the concept of The Chosen One (which, of course, has mythological foundations and so, is a natural fit). Who, after all, is the best candidate for The Chosen One, if not God himself? The problem though is, how do you establish vulnerability when you know God’s arrival cannot be stopped? For this reason, it’s hard to believe that Sum-80 (a resplendent Deepika Padukone) is ever going to suffer any serious harm. Add to this her ally, Ashwatthama, who we are told cannot be killed too. What are the real dangers then? Who’s the big, menacing villain in this film? There’s the looming figure of Supreme Yaskin (Kamal Haasan, who looks incredible in this role), but this film offers us little about his character. Any losses Team Sum-80 suffers, ring cursory. Mariam (Shobana) glitters briefly and is expectedly dispensed with. Kyra (Anna Ben) has a great stunt moment, but fizzles out, again, to no real effect. This perhaps is the fundamental issue with Kalki 2898 AD, which, despite boasting of iconic world-building, finds it hard to create any real attachment towards its characters.

Around the beginning of the film, we see some beautifully presented snapshots of human horror (hunger, corruption, war, genocide, all of it). This compilation of drawings does more to present a sense of dystopian horror than the events of the actual film. Sure, there’s material in the film for you to think about and attribute cause. Women are dispensable objects. Their foetuses are extracted by a Matrix-like machine for the villain’s survival. The film also establishes that this world, lacking any real life, seems on the verge of extinction already. So, yes, if you ponder over these details, this world does seem horrific. But the film’s job isn’t just to inform and expect you to ponder; its job is to make you feel too.

What I did feel strongly was admiration for Nag Ashwin’s ambition and imagination. What I also felt was a strong sense of pride about Santhosh Narayanan’s score. But as for the storytelling itself, I regretfully didn’t feel much—except during those two big moments when the film recreates a scene from the Kurukshetra. Nag Ashwin is smart in how he builds up to this moment towards the end. When Krishna points out to Arjuna that their chariot, protected by Hanuman, driven by a god-charioteer, has still been attacked, it feels like the mother of all punchlines for a hero figure. No Rebel-Star reference can match up to such writing. During Kalki 2898 AD, I thought about various great films from recent times. The Marvel films, the Dune films, the Mad Max films, The Hunger Games films, and Game of Thrones too. And perhaps for the first time in the history of our cinema, Nag Ashwin has filled us with confidence that we can create such authentic worlds too, never mind whether it’s set in a forgotten past or a dystopian future. And this… is its own sort of achievement.

Film: Kalki 2898 AD

Director: Nag Ashwin

Cast: Amitabh Bachchan, Prabhas, Kamal Haasan, Deepika Padukone, Shobhana, Saswata Chatterjee

Rating: 3/5

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