Kalki 2898 AD rides into the future with armour cobbled together from Hollywood fantasies and Hindu mythology. Nag Ashwin’s Telugu movie, which has been dubbed into Hindi and Tamil, is loaded with visual effects, gaming-style photorealistic animation and ideas nicked from the Star Wars, Blade Runner, Dune, Matrix and Marvel productions. Kalki 2898 AD doesn’t lack ambition, only the ability to stage a spectacle on its own terms.

Telugu strongman Prabhas leads a movie about a prophesied golden dawn that lasts 180 minutes , only to end on a cliff-hanger and the promise (or threat?) of Part Two. Kalki 2898 AD begins with the fate of the warrior Ashwatthama from the Mahabharata. Nag Ashwin’s riff on the epic is more inventive than the events that are set 874 years from our present.

Desertification has forced most of humankind into the capital city Kasi. Despite being packed with soldiers loyal to the levitating tyrant Yaskin (Kamal Haasan), Kasi allows bounty hunters like the amoral Bhairava (Prabhas) to thrive. The odd guerrilla from the neighbouring rebel outpost Shambala too manages to slip in and out with ease.

An inverted triangle known as the Complex purportedly watches over Kasi. Not unlike the Nirodh symbol for family planning, the Complex houses fertile women who have been corralled together for a mysterious purpose. One of the women is Sumati (Deepika Padukone), whose path eventually crosses with Bhairava, the rebels led by Mariam (Shobana), and Ashwatthama (Amitabh Bachchan).

Deepika Padukone in Kalki 2898 AD (2024). Courtesy Vyjayanthi Movies.

The movie proudly owns its derivative nature while missing the point about the dystopic fiction from which it borrows wholesale. Righteous resistance to a dictatorship or fresh ways of imagining power structures – central themes of dystopic cinema – are feeble in a movie that not only rests on star power but recommends a throwback to mythic heroism.

Despite heavy nods to Denis Villeneuve’s Dune films – from the mountains of sand to the prophecy about a messianic leader – Kalki 2898 AD has little say on whether the future is going to be any different from the present. More than 800 years from now, we will still be slavishly worshipping heroes, the movie suggests. A rebel soldier is even grateful to be captured by the allegedly fearsome Bhairava.

The opposition is equally weak. Saswata Chatterjee’s Complex enforcer Manas, most likely restrained by an ostentatious collar, is too clownish to be taken seriously. After taking forever to set up its plot, much of which unfolds in murky-looking, underlit interiors, Kalki 2898 AD wakes up in the post-interval sections.

The climactic battle between the forces of good and evil is dominated by Ashwatthama’s wizardry. The eight foot-high Ashwatthama towers over Bhairava, literally and otherwise. Amitabh Bachchan provides the grace notes in a mostly indifferently performed movie. Bachchan’s famous baritone has been enhanced, just like his height, but the thespian’s gravitas is wholly human.

The cast includes a host of actors from the southern film industries, including Pasupathy, Brahmanandam and a feisty Anna Ben. Disha Patani plays Bhairava’s girlfriend, who disappears after supplying dialled-up oomph. Deepika Padukone’s Sumati is around for longer, but has little to do beyond looking stricken.

There are cameos for Telugu directors SS Rajamouli and Ram Gopal Varma. Rajamouli’s character has an exchange with Bhairava that is meant as an inside joke about the Baahubali movies, which starred Prabhas. The last thing Kalki 2898 AD needs is a reminder of Rajamouli’s talent for localising Hollywood-style spectacle – borrowing and repurposing, rather than merely borrowing.

Kalki 2898 AD (2024).