‘Kalki 2898 AD’ Movie Review: Indian Blockbuster Lives Up To The Hype

Someday, a movie in which a man defeats an attacking spaceship with a single punch will get a negative review, but today is not that day. Kalki 2898 AD is not only the most expensive Indian movie ever made, but also the first in a planned series of movies – the Kalki Cinematic Universe, if you will – set in a futuristic India in which men are men, women are women and the special effects are completely freaking awesome. This is a highly entertaining sci-fi movie in which various cinematic tropes are refreshed from a Telugu-language perspective. Does it reinvent in the wheel? No. Does it need to, especially when it’s this entertaining? Of course not. This is a tremendous cinematic experience best enjoyed surrounded by a crowd going absolutely wild.

It’s 700 years from now and Bhairava (Prabhas) is a sparky bounty hunter with a sentient car, Bujji (voiced by Keerthy Suresh), who lives in Kashi, the last city in India after the Ganges dried up. Everything’s grimy, robots live alongside people, and the post-apocalyptic setting has a strong Star Wars/Blade Runner/Mad Max vibe. Literally hanging over the city is an inverted pyramid called the Complex, where the wealthy live opulent lives and fertile women and girls are kept nameless, imprisoned, and forcibly ‘seeded.’

Once their pregnancies hit 100 days, their amniotic fluid is harvested for the leader of the Complex, Supreme Yaskin (Kamal Haasan), who floats around a pool room in a dhoti, strangling the henchmen he doesn’t like. It’s all part of a prophecy. It’s also pretty gross, prompting way too many thoughts about Elon Musk, but the people struggling to survive down below don’t have the bandwidth to do anything about it. 

Fortunately, there’s a hidden city called Shambala, built around a sacred tree and controlled by a nice lady called Mariam (Shobhana), with a multi-cultural rebel army running around in search of the woman at the center of the prophecy. (Is one of the rebels named Luke (Harshith Malgireddy)? Lol. Lmao.) That woman turns out to be SU-M80 (Deepika Padukone), whose pregnancy was not the result of a ‘seeding’ and has secretly lasted much longer than 100 days. Once that news is out, the hunt is on; Bhairava and Bujji are first among many chasing SU-M80, or Sumathi, around the desert with futuristic guns going bang bang bang.

But Sumathi finds she has a secret weapon: Ashwatthama, an eight-foot-tall immortal guardian with a giant fighting stick who ensures her safety and protection by kicking every ass that comes near him. And in case you weren’t sure that was entirely awesome, Ashwatthama is played by possibly the greatest movie star in any culture of all time, Amitabh Bachchan.

Writer-director Nag Ashwin is here adapting stories from the Hindu scriptures with a shoot-’em-up level of glee that manages to be both utterly futuristic and completely ordinary. (If somebody remade The Ten Commandments in space, it might feel something like this.) But Kalki 2898 AD knows exactly what it’s doing, both with the old-fashioned plot points and more up-to-date CGI-enabled excitement. Sumathi is not wholly passive and, in fact, experiences way more violence than it’s comfortable watching inflicted on a heavily pregnant person.

Pleasingly, that not-quite-feminist characterization is balanced with Kyra (Anna Ben), a friendly rebel fighter with some gangbuster fight scenes, and Roxie (Disha Patani), Bhairava’s underdressed girlfriend who sneaks him into the Complex for a taste of the finer things (and the musical sequence). Current superstar Prabhas is also given many show-off moments to both fight like a demon and clown around, mocking his public persona while he’s doing it. The moment when he’s badly hurt during a fight but desperately trying to pretend that he isn’t is especially funny. And striding over all of it is Mr. Bachchan, the galactic superstar who would have lent an air of authority and pathos even if he’d only dropped in for a cameo. There are indeed plenty of cameos from various Telugu superstars, but Mr. Bachchan is fully involved and fully in charge, and it’s clear in the planned sequel he’ll have even more to do.

Do the tonal shifts always work? Are the portentous lectures about fighting for a better tomorrow and protecting the future always interesting? Of course not. But it truly does not matter. This is Indian cinema’s attempt to outdo Hollywood comic book movies at their own game, and quite frankly, their version is fresher, smarter, and less boring. There’s an appreciation for human frailty in Indian blockbusters that has utterly vanished from their American counterparts, and that taps a very deep well of human feeling that Americans are presently too frightened to touch. That’s a big shame because the scope of what’s being attempted here is absolutely fascinating, whether you know the cultural touchstones or not. It should be very clear to anyone who loves movies that to ignore Indian movies such as Kalki 2898 AD is to deny yourself joy. Seeing these huge superstars live up to their hype is fun indeed.

Kalki 2898 AD is now playing in theaters.

Learn more about the film at the official Vyjayanthi Pictures website.

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