Movie Review: Rajinikanth's 2.0 Fails on the Science, But Stuns on Imagery

Watching the Rajinikanth-starrer feels like watching two separate movies: one disappoints you, the other floors you.

A robot is an apt metaphor for an Indian superstar. It operates on programmed instructions; it can do no wrong. It cannot be persuaded or defeated. And more importantly, it doesn’t have to emote. The robot Chitti, imagined by filmmaker S. Shankar, can do all this and more – everything, in fact. It also looks like Rajinikanth.

At some point, Shankar must have thought, “Enough! What can be more Rajinikanth than Rajinikanth himself?” How about two Rajinikanths? Especially when the second is an automaton capable of adjectives-fail-me stunts – say, mutating into numerous rifle-holding robots curled to form a football, shooting relentlessly, transforming into miniature versions flying on pigeons, or becoming a cage that traps a monster. Chitti, in the words of millennials, is “next level”.

All of this makes perfect sense. This conceit allows Shankar to enjoy and elevate the Rajinikanth myth, without compromising the story’s plausibility. Whenever something nutty happens in these movies – the recently released 2.0 or its “spiritual” predecessor, Enthiran – you can pacify the movie nerd in you by saying, “Oh, it’s because of the robot.” Well played, Shankar.

2.0 has another superstar, Akshay Kumar, playing an ornithologist who becomes, well, birdbrained. His name says it all: Pakshirajan. (How are we doing on the subtlety meter, Mr Shankar?) 2.0 rests on a simple story – one rehashed across filmmaking cultures and ages. A city in danger, a vicious creature on the loose, a hero who rises and rescues.

But in a Rajnikanth-starrer science fiction actioner, that too in 3D, the story is the last thing that people care for. Shankar tries, though. He first builds intrigue. The film opens with an unsettling image – as scores of birds fill the early morning sky, a man hangs himself from a cellphone tower. From the next day, people’s phones start flying from their hands. Nobody knows why. The antagonist, Dr Pakshirajan, isn’t introduced in the first half. But you also get the sense that Shankar is trying too hard. There are several scenes repeating the same information, often employing the same mechanics, that treat you like an inattentive teenager.

Then there’s the science. For a film centred on the harmful effects of cellphone radiations, 2.0 isn’t interested in technology – in its complexities and complications, in its infuriating and unfortunate contradictions. The adverse effects of cellphones is a hotly debated, and contentious, topic. Studies haven’t been able to pin down whether cellphone radiation is dangerous. But 2.0 can’t care less, nor has the patience to read between the lines, for it is busy giving loud moral spiels on the perils of technology.

But that isn’t even the most annoying part. What is really frustrating about 2.0 is that it constantly tries to create an impression that it knows enough and, by that extension, cares. It does so by using keywords – the film is filled with references to “photon synthesiser”, “electromagnetic radiation”, “micro photon” – which feel hollow because, beyond word-dropping, there’s scarce evidence of any scientific engagement in this movie. Take, for example, a scene where Pakshirajan cites a crucial report to a telecom bigwig, trying to make him realise the weight of the problem. That report, he says, is written by a “famous Russian scientist, Frank Baranowski”. No such man exists. This is just one of the several instances where this film wilfully misleads its audience. This is dishonest and disingenuous filmmaking, which is all the more harmful because it wears the garb of science to sound morally conscious.

And yet, 2.0 also features stunning images – so captivating that they almost exist outside the film. Most Indian movies, even the much publicised ‘mass-ey’ fares, lack a distinct visual language, exemplifying an utter lack of imagination. But 2.0 consistently soars. The premise of the film – the dangers of cellphones – doesn’t automatically lend to riveting cinematography, but Shankar knows how to make images sing, turning them into events that leave you enchanted.

At the start of the film, for instance, we find out that cellphones are being used by a mysterious force. But we soon see how. Thousands of them lie scattered on an isolated highway, the night only illuminated by the light from their screens. Then they come to life, as they realign themselves, like the curl of a sea storm, and literally start flowing towards the city. There, they cover the walls, floors and ceilings of perpetrators (the ministers and the owners of telecom companies). In another scene, they light up an entire forest – they cover and adorn the trees; some on the ground slowly move forward, rustling leaves in the process. Some sequences later, the cellphones stick together to form a ginormous bird – just the scale of original thought, and its intended spectacle, is fascinating. And so is the finest bit of the film: its climax, a big action set-piece, which turns weirder by the second (where 2.0 becomes whatever he wants: a shooting football, a cage, a magnetic device). Shankar and cinematographer Nirav Shah often shoot scenes close from the ground or from a top angle, effectively conveying the sense of dread.

In most of these scenes, not a single dialogue is said. Shankar seems to be at home here, away from the winding by-lanes of science. Which is why 2.0 is such a dichotomous experience, as it feels like watching two separate movies: one disappoints you, the other floors you. The film’s sloppiness isn’t mitigated by its leads either. Kumar is thoroughly unconvincing as the ornithologist-turned-activist, upping his earnest ante to eye-rolling levels, and ludicrous as the city-destroying monster. Rajinikanth, too, cast in a staple role, adds nothing new.

But all disappointments related to multi-starrers can be both allayed and answered by a simple question, “What did you expect?” What did you expect indeed – a statement of resignation that says as much about our films as it does about us.