‘Kalki 2898 AD’ Review: Lavish Tollywood Sci-Fi Epic Is an Unabashedly Derivative Spectacle (2024)

With “Kalki 2898 AD,” Telugu cinema filmmaker Nag Ashwin rifles through a century of sci-fi and fantasy extravaganzas to create a wildly uneven mashup of everything from Fritz Lang’s “Metropolis” to Marvel Comics movies, underpinned by elements from the Hindu epic poem “Mahabharata.” It’s billed, perhaps optimistically, as the first chapter of the Kalki Cinematic Universe franchise —which makes it part of a larger trend, since it launches the same weekend that Kevin Costner’s multi-film “Horizon” saga does in the U.S.

International viewers unfamiliar with the specifics of the ancient Kurukshetra War between the Kauravas and the Pandavas — think Hatfields and McCoys, only with chariots and spears — may want to brush up on Indian mythology before approaching “Kalki 2898 AD,” if only to make some sense of repeated references to that clash. Such foreknowledge could be especially useful during the CGI-amped opening scenes that illustrate how Lord Krishna cursed the warrior Ashwatthama to an eternal life as punishment for a grave misdeed, but allowed him a shot at redemption if he someday assisted in the birth of Kalki, the tenth and final avatar of the Hindu god Vishnu.

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On the other hand, moviegoers throughout the world should have no trouble identifying (and in many cases appreciating) Ashwin’s numerous visual and narrative allusions to “Dune,” “The Handmaid’s Tale,” “Star Wars,” “Black Panther,” “Blade Runner,” “Mad Max,” the Harry Potter movies and a dozen or so other pieces of intellectual property. Extended and unwieldy hunks of “Kalki 2898 AD” are devoted to world-building and character-introducing in parallel plotlines that take a long time to intersect. As a result, there are too many sluggishly paced stretches where the passing of time is keenly felt and the storyline is obscured by confusion. But the aggressively spectacular (and, again, CGI-intensified) action set-pieces are generously plentiful and undeniably thrilling, and the lead players are charismatic enough, or over-the-top villainous enough, to seize and maintain interest. Will that be enough to justify two followup flicks? It’s hard to say from early box-office reports.

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After the fateful encounter on the centuries-earlier Kurukshetra War battlefield, “Kalki 2898 AD” fast-forwards a few thousand years to Kasi, a familiar looking but impressively detailed dystopian slum described variously as the first and the last viable city on Earth. High above the huddled masses, there is the Complex, a humongous inverted pyramid where, not unlike the elites in “Metropolis,” an Emperor Palpatine lookalike ruler named Supreme Yaskin (Kamal Haasan) and other members of the in crowd savor an abundance of luxuries — including, no joke, their very own ocean — while served by manual laborers recruited from below.

Bhairava (Telugu superstar Prabhas), a roguish bounty hunter who rolls in a tricked-out faux Batmobile equipped with a robotic co-pilot, yearns to earn enough “credits” to buy his way into the Complex, where he can crash the best parties, ride horses through open fields and avoid all the debt collectors hounding him in Kasi. He seizes on the opportunity to make his dreams come true when a colossal reward is posted for the capture of SUM-80 (Deepika Padukone), an escapee from the Complex’s Project K lab, where pregnant women are routinely incinerated after being drained of fluids that can ensure Yaskin’s longevity.

While on the run through a desert wasteland, en route to the rebel enclave known as Shambala, SUM-80 is renamed Sumati by newfound allies and, more important, protected by the now-ancientAshwatthama (Amitabh Bachchan), who has evolved into an 8-foot-tall sage with superhuman strength, kinda-sorta like Obi-Wan Kenobi on steroids, and a sharp eye for any woman who might qualify as the Mother, the long-prophesized parent of — yes, you guessed it — Kalki.

Bhairava and his droid sidekick Bujji (voiced by Shambala Keerthy Suresh) follow in hot pursuit, and are in turn pursued by an army of storm troopers led by Commander Manas (Saswata Chatterjee), a cherubic-faced Yaskin factotum who always seems to be trying a shade too hard to exude intimidating, butch-level authority. Ashwatthama swats away the storm troopers and their flying vehicles like so many bothersome flies, and exerts only slightly more effort by warding off Bhairava and his high-tech weaponry. (Shoes that enable you to fly do qualify as weaponry, right?)

For his own part, Bhairava has a few magical powers of his own, though it’s never entirely clear what he can or cannot do with them. After a while, it’s tempting to simply assume that, in any given scene, the bounty hunter can do whatever the script requires him to do.

But never mind: He and Ashwatthama do their respective things excitingly well during the marathon of mortal combat that ensues when just about everybody (including Manas and his heavily armed goons) get ready to rumble in Shambala for the climactic clash.

All of which may make “Kalki 2898 AD” sound a great deal more coherent than it actually is. Truth to tell, this is a movie that can easily lead you at some point to just throw up your hands and go with the flow. Or enjoy the rollercoaster ride. And if this really is, as reported, the most expensive motion picture ever produced in India, at least it looks like every penny and more is right there up on the screen.

‘Kalki 2898 AD’ Review: Lavish Tollywood Sci-Fi Epic Is an Unabashedly Derivative Spectacle (2024)
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