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Kalki 2898 - AD

There’s nothing original or particularly surprising about “Kalki 2898 AD,” a polished and expensive-looking Telugu-language Indian science-fiction adventure. This big-budget fantasy, which grafts elements of “The Mahabharata” onto American sci-fi touchstones like “Star Wars” and “Mad Max,” brings to mind a few other recent Indian spectaculars, like “Brahmastra Part One: Shiva” and “Adipurush.” “Kalki 2898 AD” succeeds where most others have flailed simply by giving its dystopian countermyth a sense of proportion to match its gigundo scale. Goofy, over-earnest, and just good enough where it counts, “Kalki 2898 AD” outdistances its competition simply by digging deeper than expected into its patchy lore’s rich melodramatic turf.

More like the J.J. Abrams-helmed “Star Wars” sequels than anything George Lucas made, “Kalki 2898 AD” takes place in a godless world with scarce resources, low birth rates, and no heroes except the self-interested. Supreme Yaskin (Kamal Haasan), a Palpatinian cyborg despot, rules the pseudo-Utopian Complex by proxy, through baby-faced Commander Manas (Saswata Chatterjee), an inexhaustible battalion of storm troopers, and a ton of amoral, bounty-seeking scavengers. Headlining star Prabhas plays one such scavenger, Bhairava, a happy-go-lucky mooch who owes money, I mean credits, all around town. 

Eventually, Bhairava stumbles into SUM-80 (Deepika Padukone), later renamed Sumathi, a pregnant refugee from the Complex’s “The Handmaid’s Tale”-esque Project K laboratory complex. Bhairava will do anything to live in the Matrix-like Complex, and Sumathi has a big bounty on her head. She’s also protected by Ashwatthama, played by a seven-foot tall Amitabh Bachchan, who’s empowered by Herculean strength and on a centuries-old mission to protect Sumathi and her child, who may or may not be the messiah that will save the world from eternal darkness. Everybody chases after Sumathi, who, with the help of a few sympathetic strangers, crosses a vast wasteland to the Zion-like sanctuary of Shambala, guarded by the saintly Mariam (Shobhana) and an army of techno-spear-carrying soldiers.

As you might imagine, the first half of “Kalki 2898 AD” laboriously sets up what the back half nudges home. By that point, the movie’s pan-Indian ensemble cast has slotted into their second-hand roles and is no longer teasing but rather declaring their story’s grandeur. It’s still thrilling to see a pantheon of mega-watt Indian stars, including the often-included but rarely so-well-venerated Bachchan, represented as the icons that their devoted fans already know them to be. 

“Kalki 2898 AD” eventually finds its rhythm and some urgency after a few too many pseudo-comic lulls once Sumathi escapes the Complex, sliding down and clambering up Death Star-like sluices and tunnels and then escaping through an infernal trash compactor. When SUM-80 walks in slow-motion through a corridor of flamethrowers, we see an insubstantial character struggling to outdistance a star performer. When she emerges as Sumathi, a name given to her by two selfless conspirators, it’s mostly because the story has become focused enough to transcend the actors’ campy gestures. Several familiar and even predictable story beats are hit along the way and the movie eventually stops exactly where you might expect the first entry in a wannabe franchise to end up. But what starts as a crowded blockbuster eventually becomes a disarming exercise in style.

It’s maybe also worth noting that the movie’s computer graphics consistently give a fine enough expression to otherwise familiar sci-fi tropes and settings. Yes, the Complex’s space-ships look like the dried-up husks of the gonad aliens from Tobe Hooper’s “Invaders from Mars” remake, and yes, when the Complex’s soldiers put on their face-covering helmets, they do look like Mr. Roboto’s kinky nephews, despite also being armed with what looks like a 3-D printed water guns. Prabhas also looks a little silly in a Geordi La Forge-style ocular visor, but that doesn’t stop him from becoming the antihero this goofy-looking tentpole riser needs. 

By movie’s end, the filmmakers have finally struck a balance between prefab wide-eyed wonder and a disarmingly bleak drama about struggling to have faith and even be hopeful despite, uh, everything. There are a few standout moments before the movie’s ten-minute halftime interval, which suggests that the movie’s real heroes are its animators and special effects artists. Splashy action scenes, like a pair of fights that pit Big B against Prabhas, also stand out thanks to their pacing and dramatic buildup. Canned melodrama still hits the spot.

By devoting themselves a little more seriously to genre conventions and formulaic contrivances, “Kalki 2898 AD” takes off where so many of its maxi-sized competitors have face-planted. Even the mostly negligible wraparound scenes, which promise bigger and more consequential events in the inevitable sequel, do what they do. It’s all used parts, but in this particular case, they’re well-polished enough to have a modest gleam.

Simon Abrams

Simon Abrams is a native New Yorker and freelance film critic whose work has been featured in The New York TimesVanity FairThe Village Voice, and elsewhere.

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Film Credits

Kalki 2898 - AD movie poster

Kalki 2898 - AD (2024)

Rated PG-13

181 minutes

Cast

Prabhas as Bhairava

Amitabh Bachchan as Ashwatthama

Kamal Haasan as Yaskin

Deepika Padukone as Sum-80 "Sumathi"

Disha Patani as Roxie

Saswata Chatterjee as Manas

Director

Screenplay

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