Kalki 2898 AD Is An Imaginative Epic. But Ends on A Whimper


This movie occupies the world of tomorrow. But not just any vision of where our world is going. This feature exists in a desolate future riddled with desert landscapes. Hope is scarce. A woman's womb is paramount to humanity’s continued existence. An unlikely reluctant male figure could prove critical to preventing the apocalypse. Nefarious villains live in a quartered-off location that our heroes desperately want to break into. Heightened action sequences drive the plot. These details drive a motion picture currently dominating the pop culture zeitgeist…Hell Comes to Frogtown. They’re also instrumental narrative elements in writer/director Nag Ashwin's new sci-fi epic Kalki 2898 AD.

This lavish production opens with a prologue set in the Kurukshetra War's aftermath before immediately shifting gears into 2898 AD. Earth has devolved into a landscape hellscape with only one functioning city, Kasi. Hovering over this city is the Complex. This place is a massive utopia anyone can live in...for the price of one million units. Not everyone in the Complex is a rich person voluntarily living out their days in paradise. Fertile women forcibly exist in a Complex laboratory. Here, they become pregnant as part of a deadly scientific procedure meant to benefit the evil ruler of this world, Supreme Yaskin (Kamal Haasan).

This desolate location is where SUM-80 (Deepika Padukone) has lived out her days. Back on Kasi, the scoundrel Bhairava (Prabhas) dreams of securing enough lucrative bounties to live in the Complex. In another corner of this crumbling city, Ashwatthama (Amitabh Bachchan) wallows in misery after being cursed to live forever in the prologue.  These individuals couldn’t be more different from one another. However, throughout Kalki 2898 AD, their existences will intertwine just when the world could really use their combined power most.

For decades, everyone from Christians to Buddhists has seen their theology as subtext in various Star Wars adventures. The ubiquity of such interpretations reflects how often sci-fi cinema and spirituality go hand-in-hand. Both Avatar's title and core plot elements derive heavily from Hindu mythology. Even L. Ron Hubbard's Battlefield: Earth books built upon the author's Scientology nonsense. Kalki 2898 AD continues this tradition with a story (penned by Ashwin, Rutham Samar, Sai Madhav Burra, and B. S. Sarawagna Kumar) rooted in interpreting Hindu mythology figures into a Dune-esque sci-fi setting.

Hindu mythos and texts like Mahabharata are the leaping-off point for a production firmly rooted in modern sci-fi aesthetics. Bhairava's written and performed in the Han Solo/Peter Quill/Malcolm Reynolds mold. Nefarious baddie Supreme Yaskin evokes Thanos and Palpatine in equal measure. Mixing together George Lucas and Vyasa makes for an entertaining combination in Kalki 2898 AD’s first half. This section is when the crowded screenplay hops all over this fictional world establishing a slew of protaganists. Each character comes with their own storyline complete with distinctly different visual and tonal elements. Sometimes it comes off as disjointed. However, more often than not, there’s an exciting versatility on display in Ashwin’s filmmaking.

SUM-80’s world's framed through a quietly ominous lens reminiscent of THX-1138 or the isolated prison complex in Andor. Youngster Raia (Keya Nair) discovers Ashwatthama in a dusty temple in sequences that could easily inhabit a classic adventure movie. Most excitingly, the snarky Bhairava dishes out stylized skirmishes against his adversaries in Kasi. Prabhas is incredibly fun playing such a deeply self-serving figure while Bhairava's rapport with scene-stealing robot Bujji (Keerthy Suresh) provides the most hilarious moments of this epic. Bujji could easily hang out with C-3PO or TARS in the pantheon of great sci-fi movie robots, she's a riot!

Kalki 2898 AD has a deeply imaginative spirit in its first half that’s hard to resist. Consistently dedicated filmmaking informs both claustrophobic Complex laboratory sequences and Bhairava fighting a brawny duo in a VR café. Even better, the sets used to render these wildly varying environments are glorious looking. Nitin Zihani Choudhary's production design leans heavily on practical sets littered with unique textures and vivid colors. Yaskin’s chambers contain golden streaks immediately differentiating his confines from anywhere else in this universe. Meanwhile, Kasi's streets feel deeply lived in. Actors like Prabhas aren’t just standing in front of hollow screensavers. One look at this city and decades of wear-and-tear informed through severe economic inequality are apparent.

Unfortunately, Kalki 2898 AD's greatest qualities dwindle in the second half and more generic blockbuster instincts take over. This includes a final battle involving clashing armies and hovering canoes that could've existed in a Thor or Aquaman installment. Villainous soldiers in this set piece headed out to war decked out in head-to-toe outfits making them look like Snake Eyes from G.I. Joe. Those costumes, combined with the nighttime setting of the conflict, ends Kalki 2898 AD on a visually muted note. Why has the color palette suddenly opted for tedious hues for the grand finale?

Unfortunately, Kalki 2898 AD’s post-intermission shenanigans also reinforce troubling gender roles that drag down the whole script. Rich narrative potential exists in exploring SUM-80 coming to terms with her greater mythological importance or even what would happen if she left the Complex. Unfortunately, this lavish production never explores her mindset. The only things defining SUM-80 are her womb and the way she can motivate male players. Meanwhile, two exciting lady characters immediately establish striking personalities…before they’re promptly disposed of. All the imagination in Kalki 2898 AD fails to result in much exciting material for the lady characters.

The entire production also ends on a disappointing cliffhanger that just solidifies how underwhelming Kalki 2898 AD’s generic finale is. As Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse demonstrated, a good cliffhanger makes you immediately want to see what happens next. Kalki 2898 AD’s ending just left me frustrated over the preceding feature. Even in the middle of all these issues, the second half of this sci-fi blockbuster does have its share of virtues. Most notably, visual effects making Ashwatthama appear drastically taller than other characters are incredibly convincing. Trying to sell that kind of size discrepancy has proved cumbersome for digitally shot movies for decades. Even costly tentpoles like The Hobbit and Avengers: Infinity War have succumbed to this problem. Ashwatthama somehow doesn’t look like an incredibly fake creation reminding viewers of green-screen trickery. That's a mighty impressive feat in the modern blockbuster cinema world.

Furthermore, Santhosh Narayanan's score does solid work the entire runtime creating distinct musical cues for each of the main characters. Especially entertaining are jazz-informed leitmotifs playing anytime Bhairava daydreams about the Complex. Saxophone wails accompanying this guy’s fantasies centered on eating “real eggs” or sleeping on a cozy mattress nicely accentuate the “ritzy” lifestyle Bhairava strives for. Narayanan’s richly detailed compositions nicely communicate the idiosyncrasies of Kalki 2898 AD’s principal characters. Unfortunately, Ashwin’s creative vision eventually lacks its own personality. It’s impossible to dismiss a movie channeling Pacific Rim and Hell Comes to Frogtown with verve. However, it’s very easy to wish Kalki 2898 AD’s better elements inhabited a less artistically erratic epic.

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