Featuring superstar Shah Rukh Khan and festooned with enough CGI ornamentation to qualify as a subcontinental Christmas tree, “Ra.One” is a frenetic, tuneful, full-throttle action-comedy that has reportedly crushed Indian presales records. Still, this videogame-themed outing seems unlikely to become a crossover hit: While South Asian auds will likely flock to a film that does what Bollywood does with a major techno bump, the aesthetics of overkill will make the result inaccessible to Westernized Americans, the campiness, as usual, muddying the translation.
(Hindi, Tamil, English dialogue)
One can see where helmer Anubhav Sinha (who co-wrote with three other scribes) has gone right in co-opting a number of popular themes, most notably the Frankenstein myth: Shekhar (Khan) is a London-based videogame designer whose son, Prateek (Armaan Verma), thinks he’s a nerd. He is — and doing a Michael Jackson impersonation for Prateek’s friends is more likely to send the kid into therapy than to win his affection. But the boy does spark Shekhar’s imagination: When he asks for a videogame with an unbeatable villain, Shekhar creates Ra.One, a derivation of a Hindu demon. But the onscreen character takes over the game, crosses the threshold between virtual and real, kills his creator and starts hunting down the last player he didn’t beat: Prateek.
Khan, a B.O. powerhouse whose recent output includes the “Forrest Gump”-like dramedy “My Name Is Khan,” never holds back here. He even does double duty, playing both Shekhar and his vidgame avatar, G.One, whom Prateek and his mother, Sonia (Kareena Kapoor), create out of the vestiges of Shekhar left on the computer. (How? Don’t ask.) G.One is an emotion-free robot who must keep the young Prateek from the grips of Ra.One (played in nonvirtual form by Arjun Rampal), and the “Terminator” references start coming fast and furious.
Young Verma plays Prateek rather petulantly, but as a disgruntled adolescent he’s perfectly convincing. Kapoor has little do besides smile insipidly or look aghast, and most of her scenes are shot like very ambitious hair-care commercials. She and Khan both acquit themselves admirably, however, during the musical numbers, of which there are several.
Along with Khan’s presence, it’s the effects that sell “Ra.One,” and they arrive more or less nonstop. Indeed, where the film goes awry is in belaboring all the stylistic flourishes — the extremely slo-mo, “Matrix”-style battle stuff, the defiance of physics a la “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” — as if it were all new, which it may be to Bollywood. Rather than incorporate the technology into the story, Sinha’s CG acrobatics become the equivalent of a wide receiver doing backflips in the endzone — amusing, but beside the point.
At the same time, much of the film is marked by a sense of dead air, owing to the fact that there’s not a lot of story, but nevertheless, per Bollywood conventions, a lot of time to fill. One way of filling it would have been to let auds in on one of the more tantalizing lines in the film, which states that Ra.One was created out of the “10 most evil men in history.” Really? Who are they?) The pic also could have explained some of its not-so-hidden messages: Introductory titles warn that smoking is bad for your health and that none of the stunts in the film should be attempted at home, and both lessons are reinforced later in the story — all of which is great and well-intended, but seems to come out of nowhere.
The film’s most memorable scene features the destruction of the Chhatrapati Shivaji train station (formerly the Victoria Terminus) in Mumbai. It’s a great piece of chaos, the destruction of both a real-life Indian heritage site and a remnant of the Raj. And it shows what Sinha was capable of doing with all that technology at his disposal.