Chennai is under attack. Every cellphone in the city – from those used by fisherwomen to the one being used to take a funeral-selfie – has flown from hands and vanished into the sky, leaving scientists befuddled. I found one floated theory particularly interesting: what if this is a rival cellular phone company trying to establish itself? Considering the way a certain service provider has busted the kneecaps of the competition with savagely predatory pricing, I wondered if this film’s big bad was indeed a stand-in for one of India’s megacorps: Could “2.0” give us Rajini vs. Ambani?
No dice. Director Shankar has unfettered visual imagination and unconventional thinking, but despite well-meaning ideas at the core of his stories, his cinema only flirts with relevance instead of committing to it. The 2010 film “Enthiran,” also known as “Robot,” was essentially a Frankenstein film set in a world of artificial-intelligence, but what Shankar truly cracked was a way forward for his mythically outsized leading man: Rajinikanth played bearded and mild-mannered scientist Vasigaran, while all the punches and punchlines were saved for Chitti the Robot, his clean-shaven and highly superhuman alter-ego.
In this sequel “2.0,” the battle is potentially fascinating: This film pits Rajinikanth versus the phones that give him the power he holds, via memes and ringtones and hashtags. Except the villain we get is a bit of a birdbrain: an ornithologist who, angered by the injustice we do to birds with the radiation from our cellular phone towers, uses thousands of disembodied cellphones to create an … angry bird.
“Nice DP,” says Chitti when he comes face to face with the villain, unsubtly named Pakshiraja and played by Akshay Kumar. It is the right kind of response, for Kumar, despite his seemingly insurmountable power, never seems like a true threat once the Rajinikanths arrive on the scene. As if Dr. Vasigaran and Chitti weren’t enough, the scientist now has a fembot sidekick, NILA (which stands for Nice Intelligent Lovely Assistant) and Kumar, despite growing in size, can’t quite measure up.
Nothing, of course, measures up to the visuals. Shankar is all about the spectacle and India’s first film shot entirely in 3-D doesn’t disappoint. There is too much eagerness to give everything in the foreground the 3-D treatment – far too many objects are thrown at us – but that enthusiasm is natural, like the first time someone discovers portrait mode on the iPhone. “Enthiran” had fabulous visuals of interlocked Rajinikanths, however, and it isn’t easy to top that. This film does a lot, visually, and the idea of wriggling phones moving in the same direction is suitably creepy. The render isn’t perfect and the opacity occasionally goes in and out, but the visual works. It’s quite impressive.
The film is rather linear, with an easy-to-identify and easy-to-extinguish problem, but coasts nicely on Rajini’s charm. The superstar is in vintage screen-dominating form, both as the efficient Vasigaran as well as Chitti, who later becomes a red-streaked version of himself, an obnoxious sounding Oompa Loompa. Considering that Kumar too was a gentle, white-bearded conspiracy theorist who turned into a squawking vulture-type, this may be the film’s way of telling us to beware of upgrades.
Rajini is ably supported by NILA, a Hot Siri played suitably stoically by Amy Jackson, who has raised herself on a diet of television, cinema, food and gossip in order to become more human. As a result, she’s an enthusiastically passive aggressive robot who makes puns as she waits for robot love. It’s a quirky part, and Jackson has fun with it.
Shankar is constantly dumbing it down: even when the mysterious villain is first hit by a “neutralization ray,” an on-screen meter helpfully informs us how much longer he needs to be attacked. This is a “family film” in the most obvious way. Yet Shankar also regularly gives us clever asides, both visual and verbal: a window-washer startled by the giant bird-monster, or queuing up to buy cellphones described as a pilgrimage.
This balance deserts the film in its final stretch, where the climax goes on and on and, at one point you will never be able to un-see, Rajini enters Kumar. Too many things meld together into bigger, more unweildy things, and Shankar’s perpetual game of Lego even turns Chitti magnetic, covering him in all sorts of random metallic garbage like a Subodh Gupta installation. Also, the hero threatens the villains by holding pigeons ransom and threatening to snap their necks. Go figure.
Actually, don’t. Despite that tedious climax, “2.0” is a blast. It could have been a smarter film, but it is a mostly fun Rajinikanth ride, with solid 3-D and great Atmos sound – so good is the mastering that at one point when Kumar sets many a phone ringing, I hissed at the person next to me in the theater. Shankar sticks admirably to the plot and never slows down, with no time for melodrama or song sequences, despite a protracted Akshay Kumar flashback. Kumar has fun snarling and cawing, but a Rajini film is only about one man.
Now if only he could stop our calls from dropping.
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