‘Kalki 2898 AD’ is an original, eye-popping sci-fi epic, despite its major flaws

Nag Ashwin's mythologically inspired action saga is frustrating, but worth a look

"Kalki 2898 AD" is a mythologically inspired sci-fi epic.

Courtesy of Vyjayanthi Movies

A mythological sci-fi epic unlike anything you've ever seen, the three-hour Telugu blockbuster Kalki 2898 AD draws from a litany of Indian and western influences to craft a unique genre spectacle, even if it doesn't always deliver dramatically. Its post-apocalyptic future draws on ancient Hindu texts—in particular, the Mahabharat—and uses a novel, cyberpunk-flavored aesthetic to embed its subtext into the movie's literal backdrop. It's also one of the most star-studded "pan-Indian" films in recent years, featuring recognizable actors from the country's Hindi-, Telugu-, Tamil-, and Malayalam-language film industries, in pursuit of a pluralistic saga that, despite its central flaws, is at least a nice idea in theory.

The film is also, unfortunately, the latest in the "Part 1" scourge infecting both Indian and American blockbusters. These are usually half-movies with no real resolution, like Fast X, Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse and Rebel Moon Part 1: A Child of Fire in Hollywood, Prashanth Neel's Salaar Part 1: Ceasefire and KGF Chapter 1 (in Telugu and Kannada respectively), and a notable companion piece to Kalki 2898 AD: Bollywood's Disney-produced attempt at a Hinduism-inspired superhero saga, Brahmāstra Part One: Shiva. The list keeps growing, and keeps churning out setups without real payoffs, but as long as you know this about Kalki going in, buying a ticket may still be worth your while.

Directed by Nag Ashwin, who co-wrote the script with Rutham Samar, Kalki opens several thousand years in the past, with CGI diorama depiction of an ancient battle that slowly transitions into live-action. This battle, the Kurukshetra War, is the centerpiece of the Mahabharat, an epic poem which prominently features the revered Lord Krishna, one of several major reincarnations of the central Hindu deity Vishnu. Knowing these details, or those of the Mahabharat, aren't necessarily a prerequisite to watching Kalki. They certainly help, but the film is quick to boldly establish itself as a pseudo-sequel to the ancient text, using a secondary character in the epic as its doorway to the future: Ashwatthama.

Played by a jankily de-aged Amitabh Bachchan (the now octogenarian Bollywood superstar), Ashwatthama is punished for opposing Krishna. In the original Hindu text, this involved being cursed to walk the Earth for centuries. The film, however, adds a wrinkle to his fate: he is also duty-bound to protect Krishna when he finally returns in a new avatar, at some unspecified point in time. This is also a promise to viewers aching to see Bachchan back in action mode for the first time in 30 years (and in Gandalf-mode too, since his character is bearded, robed, and eight feet tall).

The specifics of Vishnu's prophesied second coming can be found in the corners of Hindu scripture (it's predicted to happen around 500,000 CE), but Ashwin brings the event forward enough—to only a few centuries from now—to keep the collapse of human civilization on the movie's mind. There's plenty more prologue involved, with minor characters explaining that women have become largely infertile, and the rulers of the last surviving human city, Kasi (the modern day holy city of Varanasi) are intent on collecting women like trophies and using their wombs for nefarious experiments, should they prove capable of bearing children.

The holy river Ganga has long since dried up—this is a desert world ravaged by climate change and war—and refugees are openly bought and sold in the city's crowded markets. A protagonist of sorts emerges in the form of Bhairava, played by "Rebel Star" Prabhas, a skilled, high-tech bounty hunter who toys with his enemies and has a laidback disposition. He is, as any modern fantasy epic seemingly must contain, the movie's Han Solo analogue, concerned only with money and with himself until his beliefs are eventually challenged.

A south Asian man, dressed in black and gray armor, sits on a robot, against a futuristic background.

"Rebel Star" Prabhas plays Bhairava in "Kalki 2898 AD."

Courtesy of Vyjayanthi Movies

Despite Prabhas's charisma as he dispenses with numerous Mad Max-esque henchmen, his character unfortunately proves to be the movie's least interesting facet. While he's surrounded by eye-popping design elements—like shops made of millennia-old buildings reinforced with neon signs, and his quipping, A.I. powered three-wheel vehicle, where two tires are made of chainmail, and one is a wrecking ball—his arc is sci-fi standard issue, and is eventually paid off not with an emotionally motivated turn, but a twist entirely outside his control.

However, as Kalki jumps unevenly back and forth between numerous characters, it finds plenty of intrigue. The city's glowing fortress-citadel—an inverted pyramid called "the Complex"—is run by one of the most insidiously conceived villains in recent blockbuster cinema: the psychically powered, dead-eyed Supreme Yaskin, played by a digitally starved Kamal Haasan. His skin-and-bones physical form is held up by plugs and wires, with large staples holding back some strange, glowing material from spilling out of his skin, as he floats above a pool with an ethereal glow, in a chamber lined with adult-sized human embryos. The film doesn't provide explanations to any of this up front, but its production design creates a sense of mystery.

None of Yaskin's numerous underlings are as uniquely conceived—they're plucked from a usual crop of generals and viziers—making Haasan's scant screen time feel like a major flaw. However, his edicts involve banning religion (and religious iconography) and controlling women's bodies by forcing them into pregnancy experiments, which makes him all the more repulsive (though the movie itself doesn’t always let its leading women transcend this function).

Outside the complex's walls, a group of rebels tries to infiltrate Yaskin's laboratory while spreading word of a second coming. On the inside, a servant woman inhumanely dubbed SUM-80 (Deepika Padukone) ends up miraculously pregnant herself, through an immaculate conception that aligns with both the movie's Hindu-inspired musings about Vishnu's return, as well as Christian iconography. In fact, despite leaning heavily on Hindu texts, the movie gestures towards a pan-theistic approach, and attempts to reconcile this divine Hindu reincarnation with Christian, Buddhist, and other beliefs.

A closeup of a south Asian woman with a black scarf around her neck, against a orange-gray background.

Deepika Padukone plays SUM-80 in "Kalki 2898 AD."

Courtesy of Vyjayanthi Movies

To draw so heavily on Hindu scripture, and treat its events as historically factual, is a thorny prospect in modern India, where belief in the veracity of scripture has long fueled Hindu extremism. However, Kalki makes several overtures towards a secular outlook, by way of centering the rebels in a fictitious fortress city dubbed Shambhala—a spiritual kingdom with importance in Hindu and Buddhist texts—where the last remaining members of several Asian, African, and European cultures have gathered to take a multi-ethnic, multicultural stand against the Complex. Notably absent, unfortunately, are any Muslims (the religion most often targeted by Hindu extremism) so this reads like a nominal corrective at best.

However, what makes Shambhala (and the film at large) so visually interesting is Ashwin's approach to technological design. Like Black Panther's Afrofuturism, Kalki's weapons, vehicles, and costumes are a futuristic outgrowth of traditionally Indian aesthetics without much western influence beyond the occasional armor. Viewers familiar with the Doordarshan network's cheaply made, long-running Mahabharat TV series from the '80s and '90s will likely recognize the influence of that shows design elements, which have now been imbued with lasers and other futuristic tech.

There's always something novel or interesting to look at in Kalki, whether QR codes grafted onto skin, flying vessels with serpentine designs, ape-like exoskeletons, elevators made from the hands of giant statues, or an enormous Bachchan beating up Prabhas with a stick. The action isn't altogether boring either, even if it gets a tad repetitive, and its geography is often lost in a flurry of swift cuts that often rob punches and kicks of impact. It's new on the surface, even if its soul is that of an ancient Greek drama conveniently solved by divine intervention, rather than human ethos. Maybe its visual tricks will run dry by its second installment (or however many films it takes Ashwin to actually tell this story), but in the meantime, Kalki 2898 AD does what sci-fi does best, boldly going where few have gone before.

Published on June 28, 2024

Words by Siddhant Adlakha

Siddhant Adlakha is a critic and filmmaker from Mumbai, though he now lives in New York City. They're more similar than you'd think. Find him at @SiddhantAdlakha on Twitter