What is scarier: a serial killer who has become addicted to the sounds of mourning that follow the trail of corpses he leaves behind? Or an Intelligence Bureau officer who is eavesdropping on every single phone call every minute of the day?

AR Murugadoss’s Spyder borrows a few ideas from Minority Report and The Dark Knight, but the ludicrous plot that promotes mass surveillance as a brilliant and necessary nation-building exercise is entirely a product of the director’s own fervid imagination. Honest and hard-working intelligence operative Shiva (Mahesh Babu) is glued to his snooping apparatus nearly every waking minute, tapping into people’s conversations and trying to detect signs of distress so that he may swoop in to save lives.

Is it legal, an official perfunctorily asks in the beginning just to get the question out of the way. Of course it isn’t, he replies, but since the larger purpose is crime prevention at any cost, it’s all good.

Shiva is a seated version of Tom Cruise in Minority Report. Instead of a highly sophisticated sensor-based computer screen and oracles who help Cruise’s law enforcement character catch criminals before they can commit their crimes, Shiva has ear plugs and software that he has specially designed to clandestinely listen in on phone calls. When “Fear” pops up on the screen, he knows it is time to put on his invisible super-suit and personally intervene, rather than tipping off the police.

Shiva has to live up to the image created by the lyrics of the song Boom Boom, which suggest in all seriousness that Marvel Comics were probably written after witnessing Surya’s otherworldly efforts.

Spyder (2017).

The software also connects Shiva to his future girlfriend, whose very name, Charlie, indicates that she is not to be taken seriously. About the boldest thing Charlie (Rakul Preet Singh) does is to confess that she has watched a few porn videos, which makes the virginal Shiva’s ears go red. But he stalks her for 28 days and realises that she is merely curious and not characterless.

The movie perks up after a pair of murders alerts Shiva to the presence of serial killer Bairavadu (SJ Surya). Bairavadu is a heartless sadist straight out of a scriptwriting manual’s chapter on “Distinguishing features of a serial killer”. He has a deep rumble and blood-shot eyes, a silken mop that is vaguely reminiscent of Anton Chigurh in No Country For Old Men, and a healthy hatred for the human race (he describes his work as “population control). The son of a cemetery worker, Bairavadu has grown up using skulls as footballs. His senses are awakened only when he hears the wails of mourners.

The inevitable contest between Shiva and Bairavudu could have been finished off before the interval if Shiva had monitored the airwaves more carefully after he discovers the killer’s identity, but even Big Brother slips up once in a while.

The cat-and-mouse game has one entirely logic-challenging but engaging sequence in which Shiva encourages the women in a neighbourhood to trick Bairavadu. Even here, surveillance is the only way in which Shiva can make progress – he beams himself into a television soap. An actor less pleasant and charming than Mahesh Babu would have caused goosebumps with his god-like omnipresence. The Telugu star’s main work here is to paper over any doubts raised over Shiva’s Stasi-like ways.

Mahesh Babu gets adequate competition in the form of SJ Surya, the Tamil director, actor and music composer. Surya’s main brief seems to have been to channel Heath Ledger’s Joker from The Dark Knight – Bairavadu even acquires facial wounds that resemble the Joker’s make-up – but the sequences with Shiva and Bairavadu are among the better ones.

Despite its polished camerawork (by Santosh Sivan) and slick production design (Rupin Suchak), Spyder cannot claim the sophistication in thought of the movies from which it has been inspired. There are no troubling questions over mass surveillance, the legal ramifications of phone tapping, and the use of extra-judicial methods to solve crimes. No expense has been spared in distinguishing Spyder from Murugadoss’s previous hits, including Ghajini and Thuppakki, but little thought has been given to the question of whether Shiva and Bairavadu are actually two faces of the same coin. Both are guided by what they hear, but only one is the designated villain. Take your pick.