‘Kalki 2898 AD’ Review: A Dense and Exhaustingly Action-Packed Dystopian Tollywood Epic

No one does action films like South Indian directors.

This is a statement that mercifully requires little justification after the worldwide success of “RRR,” a fever that will no doubt fuel the release of Nag Ashwin’s “Kalki 2898 AD.” Seamlessly blending the best inspirations from sci-fi, fantasy, and Hindu epics, the film is a staggering cinematic experience — even if that experience drags toward the end.

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We begin in the age of the “Mahabharat,” where Ashwatthama (a terrifyingly de-aged Amitabh Bachchan) is told by Krishna (Krishnakumar, voiced by Arjun Das) that he must deliver Vishnu’s final avatar Kalki to safety, whenever that day may come. Six thousand years later, it’s time, when the city of Kashi is the last vestige of civilization on the planet. Everyone is hungry, poor, and fighting for resources — everyone except those living in The Complex, a massive inverted pyramid hovering over the city, and ruled by a “god” referred to as Supreme (Kamal Haasan), who sustains his life force with the aid of a serum that’s been forcibly extracted from the wombs of fertile women (all of whom look visibly pregnant, even if the details of what’s actually growing inside of them remains a subject of great mystery and confusion).

There’s more.

In The Complex, one woman remains pregnant longer than any of the others, making her both a miracle and a target. Her name is SUM-80 — though she’s later known as Sumathi — and she’s played by Deepika Padukone. The Supreme stays inside, protected, sending a Commander (Saswata Chatterjee) to impose his order out in the world. On the streets of Kashi, the restless fighter Bhairava (Prabhas) dreams of entering the Complex once he amasses one million credits. And in the shadows of Kashi, a young girl comes into possession of Ashwatthama’s old relic, awakening him after millennia.

Despite the dense narrative, “Kalki” is easy enough to follow and even easier to invest in. The world building lore benefits from the years Ashwin put into this project, but individual storylines progress disjointedly for too long, only to lose steam once they converge. Despite the purana-era info-dump opening (ancient Hindu texts), “Kalki” takes its time serving the bigger picture, padding its 170-minute runtime in between.

Admittedly, the padding is often massively entertaining. Prabhas’ intro alone is filled with humor and fight flair, as well as his de facto partner in the film, an adorable little robot called Buji (voiced by Keerthy Suresh). Despite a satisfying performance, the actor would be even better without homogeneously growling every line of ADR, but this problem is hardly specific to “Kalki” alone. Bhairava has the best action hero himbo energy this side of “Thor: Ragnarok” (yes I am aware of “Love and Thunder”), so it’s more than welcome.

Elsewhere, the film does a solid job of serving its female actors, apart from an almost comically underused Disha Pathani, who appears as a set of abs with hair (great abs, and great hair) then disappears without a trace within the first hour. Padukone is relegated to damsel in distress, a waste of the action skills she showed off in “Pathaan,” but she’s also likely the mother of Vishnu’s avatar, so she can rest for a moment. Shobana’s Mariam is a wise, calm leader running the secret sanctuary of Shambala, and the film’s MVP has to be Kyra (Anna Ben), a rambunctious rebel willing to do whatever it takes to get Sumathi to safety.

The most engaging action includes Bhairava using replicas of himself to divert his opponents, a chase in futuristic vehicles, and any time Bachchan gets involved, because Ashwatthama is supposed to be eight feet tall (there’s even a quick scene with knockoff lightsabers). The much-hyped VFX deliver on their promise thanks to a vivid array of cityscapes, future tech, and explosions, the visuals only faltering when the de-aged Bachchan tries to deliver dialogue. There is a life-sized recreation of Michaelangelo’s “David” that gets knocked over, which would not make any more sense if I contextualized it. At a reported $75 million, it’s India’s most expensive film to date.

A bearded man wearing futuristic metal battle armor; Prabhas in 'Kalki 2898 AD'
A bearded man wearing futuristic metal battle armor; Prabhas in 'Kalki 2898 AD'

Unfortunately — though mileage will undoubtedly vary on this — there’s a new fight scene every three minutes or so, and they blur together even while they’re fun in a packed theater. The entire movie is operating at 110% with no pauses for rest, the end result feeling static because it’s so consistently heightened in every element; music, tone, editing, and more. Any respite from action is spent on plot, not character, resulting in far too many two-dimensional figures in what should otherwise be a larger-than-life epic (remember: “RRR” devoted extended time to building the relationship between its two leads so that their fights later on would actually carry weight). The high-speed chase occurs during the second hour, making the last act trudge along significantly slower despite our stories intertwined.

Most of these critiques are endemic within the genre, easily forgiven if a movie has one thing which “Kalki” does not: A killer soundtrack. Dissonant clips are spliced together for Prabhas’ first fight, and then scene-to-scene throughout the movie (including a new original performed by Diljit Dosanjh, simply captioned “Punjabi song” by the English subtitles). Later sequences include western classical music, vaguely Latin beats, and only one piece even reminiscent of a dance number. The musical score is sufficiently epic and experimental, but similarly loses impact over the duration of the film.

Even so, “Kalki 2898 AD” accomplishes exactly what it set out to. Ashwin has spoken to the press about his excitement to combine the world of cinematic sci-fi with Hindu mythology, and even as he evokes specific figures and stories from Hindu texts, the film is somehow less overtly religious than “Brahmastra” or even “RRR.” It’s the start of a cinematic universe, a star-studded vehicle with big names from North and South India, and audiences will flock to see it on the big screen.

Grade: B-

“Kalki 2898 AD” is now playing in theaters.

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