Kalki 2898 AD has the ultimate recipe for a sci-fi epic: Star Wars + Hindu myth + RRR

Bounty hunter Bhairava (Prabhas), in a leather outfit and holding a curved sword, stands in front of a squat, wide mech surrounded by sparks in a promo image for the Indian sci-fi blockbuster Kalki 2898 AD
Image: Vyjayanthi Movies

With a dash of Blade Runner, a pinch of Mad Max: Fury Road, and all the Amitabh Bachchan you can eat

Actor Amitabh Bachchan is a metaphorical giant of Indian cinema, a superstar of proportions that dwarf even A-list American celebrities. In the Indian sci-fi epic Kalki 2898 AD, his stature becomes literal: In his role as the 7-foot-tall immortal warrior Ashwatthama, the 81-year-old towers over his younger co-stars, all of whom are draws in their own right. (A handy way for the uninitiated to measure the relative fame of an Indian actor is to note the length of their introduction in a movie — the bigger the name, the more elaborate the entrance.) The sheer amount of star power in this film is overwhelming, but that isn’t even the most ambitious thing about it.

Writer-director Nag Ashwin means for Kalki 2898 AD to be nothing less than the ultimate sci-fi epic. Its scope is huge, covering 6,000 years of mythological history. Its run time is long, telling the first part of a two-part story over three jam-packed hours. (To be fair, Denis Villeneuve’s Dune movies aren’t much shorter.) And its production was expensive — reportedly around $72 million, one of the biggest budgets ever for an Indian movie. The filmmakers hope it will be a crossover event akin to S.S. Rajamouli’s record-breaking hit RRR, not only within India’s disparate film industries (Bachchan is known as a Bollywood actor, while co-stars Prabhas and Kamal Haasan work in Telugu and Tamil films, respectively) but internationally as well.

The film’s look, rendered almost entirely through CGI, will certainly feel familiar to Western audiences, with elements that recall the beloved sci-fi franchises Blade Runner, Star Wars, The Matrix, Dune, and especially Mad Max: Fury Road. The story is more specifically Indian, taking the Hindu myth of Kalki — the 10th and final incarnation of the god Vishnu, who will come to lead humanity into a new era of peace and justice — and transporting it to a dystopian sci-fi setting. But while references to magical weapons and folkloric heroes may go over the heads of all but the best-informed foreign viewers, the story’s arc follows the familiar beats of a Chosen One narrative.

A promo image for the Indian sci-fi blockbuster Kalki 2989 AD composites a young man and woman facing away from each other, with an older, white-bearded man in robes and holding a staff superimposed over both of them. In the background behind the man is a desert wasteland full of shattered, rusty wreckage. In the background behind the woman is a verdant mountain and lake, dotted with buildings.
Image: Vyjayanthi Movies

This first chapter of the Kalki 2898 AD saga spends much of its run time setting up its characters and world, beginning with a caravan of refugees arriving in the futuristic city of Kasi, the last outpost of civilization after droughts and pollution have rendered most of the planet uninhabitable. Life is cheap in Kasi, where a single chicken egg fetches the same price as a human being on the black market. The one exception is fertile women, who have become extremely valuable in this dystopian future world: Whenever one is discovered, she’s sold and shipped off to the Complex, a floating pyramid above the city, where a wealthy minority hoard the few natural resources that are left.

SUM-80 (Deepika Padukone) is one of these women, and one of hundreds who live as lab rats at the pleasure of Supreme Yaskin (Haasan), a 200-year-old tyrant who extends his life by extracting a serum from the wombs of impregnated female captives. The women die in the process, but no matter; their corpses are thrown into an incinerator, and new girls take their place. SUM-80, understandably, wants to live, so she’s hiding her pregnancy from everyone around her. But it’s been five months, and the sadistic doctors who run this so-called Project K will notice soon.

Things are grim in a different way outside of the Complex, though affable bounty hunter Bhairava (Prabhas) does his best to keep the mood light. Indian films typically blend genres, and although Kalki 2898 AD is more serious-minded than most Bollywood fare — there are no true musical numbers, sadly, though characters do lip-sync to Santhosh Narayanan’s original songs — Bhairava and his wisecracking AI companion Bujji (Keerthy Suresh) bring much-needed, Star Wars-esque comedic banter to the film. Bhairava is a Han Solo type, motivated by self-interest and the pursuit of cash, or “units.” Like Han, he’s also a ladykiller, as we learn when the similarly roguish Roxie (Disha Patani) enters the narrative.

In a promo image for the Indian sci-fi blockbuster Kalki 2989 AD, a man in black clothing and a long black cape stands in a dark, V-shaped object that looks like a single-person spaceship with a crimson-lined interior and closing crimson highlights. Behind him in the darkness, a group of similar-looking ships glow against dark mountains.
Image: Saswata Chatterjee, Sri Venkateswara Creations/Everett Collection

At first, it isn’t clear how SUM-80, Bhairava, and 6,000-year-old badass Ashwatthama, who spends much of the movie hiding out in a cave, are connected. It’s never in doubt that they’ll meet up eventually, though, or that each of them will play their role in fulfilling the prophecy preached by a rebel group living in a hidden utopia known as Shambhala. Eventually, the action moves to the rebels’ sacred retreat. But first, SUM-80 must race across the wastelands, pursued by both Supreme Yaskin’s flunkies and Bhairava, who plans to exchange this precious hostage for admission to the Complex.

Some of the digital backgrounds VFX supervisor Praveen Kilaru and his team created for Kalki 2898 AD are absolutely stunning, and sci-fi fans who like nerding out on cool ships and badass vehicles will find a lot to get into here. (The design for Bujji, who can transform from a cool car to a cooler battle robot, is especially compelling.)

But the fact that this is just the first part of a two-part story creates some serious structural issues. The first two hours of the film pass at a lively but unhurried clip, but the final hour tries to cram too much into an already overstimulating epic battle scene. It feels panicky and confused as it rushes through crucial plot developments and exposition.

in a promo still for the Indian sci-fi blockbuster Kalki 2898 AD, a humanoid figure in metal armor and mask sits in a dark space, surrounded by metal spars
Image: Saswata Chatterjee, Sri Venkateswara Creations/Everett Collection

Comparisons between Kalki and RRR are inevitable, if only because the former is nakedly trying to replicate the success of the latter. But Nag Ashwin’s film is missing a few of the elements that made RRR so charming: There’s no central bromance, no exhilarating dance sequences, and no sense of surprise. There is comedy, but it’s isolated in certain sections of the film, and there’s much less romance and music than audiences might expect. It’s still an entertaining ride, with some cool imagery and exciting chase scenes. But by channeling the gravitas of Western sci-fi movies, Kalki 2898 AD loses some of the range that makes Indian movies special. Its ambition is to be applauded. Its self-seriousness, not so much.

Kalki 2898 AD is in theaters worldwide now.

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