Vikram Kumar opens his much-anticipated, time-travel saga 24 with a brilliantly crafted beauty of a prologue, which gives its protagonist and antagonist all the space in the world to go no-holds-barred on their histrionics. It's exactly the sort of stuff that could burst the actor-star divide with elan. And expectedly, the performer in Suriya pounces on it. The actor (playing the contrasting characters of the intense scientist and the baddie with a mild-mannered charm and a haughty swagger respectively) takes us on a time travel to his hey-days when he was truly in his elements.
As the bespectacled father attempting to crack the concept of 'time', Suriya gives a cool, intellectual twist to his now-popular 'good guy' demeanour. And no, it isn't as bad as it sounds. In fact, we warm up beautifully to it this time. As the sly, thoughtful and super-evil Athreya, he starts out with such a nifty balance between his showy swank and calculated restraint, that it's real tough not to give in to the frequent wolf-whistle. And probably for the first time in our stint with the 'sci-fi' genre, even the other elements complement the raw energy of the actor on screen - the writing which cleverly rope-walks the gorge elitism and the bare-necessary simplification, the mind-blogging production design, the magical cinematography, the background score which gives the entire sequence a whole new mood and texture, the superbly staged action - everything adds up to a terrific build-up for the ensuing drama. We are hooked, to say the least.
And from there on, barring the stretched-out 'love' sequences that we eventually give up on, Vikram never really takes a misstep. His time-travel narrative, boasts of a level of cleverness and clarity, we usually don't associate with our mainstream cinemas. He takes the usual tropes of 'going to the past and changing the future' and 'parallel universes paradox' and twists them enough to give them whole new shades. The first one hour of the movie, however, is a mixed bag. The sequence, when Surya as the watch mechanic first learns about the watch's ability to control 'time', sets up the atmosphere. But things don't take off as riotously as expected with the entry of Samantha (playing the customary heroine). Though a couple of eye-popping songs (composed by Rahman and shot by Thirru) that follow fittingly entertain, things seem to have bogged down a bit. But once the focus shifts back to Athreya, the party truly comes alive with a screamer of a sequence in the old man's office.
Vikram goes on to ace the second and third acts by conjuring up enough bombshells in the character arcs of his leads. Whenever Athreya changes colours within the blink of an eyelid, we expect the time travel clichés to take centre stage. But every time, the filmmaker manages to pull a rabbit out of the hat, without going overboard with the sci-fi liberties. The tension gradually edges on, and in the last forty minutes, truly hits the skies. The beauty of these stretches is that the necessary expositions are done with a determined respect for the audience's intellect. The director keeps the narrative straight-forward and crystal clear, but he doesn't indulge in cowardly simplifications for the sake of lucidity. More importantly, he brings in his own delightful touches to the table. When a brilliant con-piece with reference to a robotic cradle is thrown casually at us, we smile. But when it's unleashed again at a later instance, when we least expect it, we can't help but scowl in delight. The film operates on such an exciting pedestal almost throughout, a nice amalgamation of skill, artistry and confidence.
But, as of every science fiction centering around time dilation, several questions remain unanswered. Given the ripple effect of events, can someone go back to the past and change something personal, so that when he returns to the present, his life would be much better? Isn't the tiniest change disastrous for the future of the universe as a whole? Does the butterfly effect hold well here? Going by the same logic, if the time-traveller was travelling from the future and apparently changing small details, wouldn't it influence other's past experiences and their cognition of them? How then would we have a complete aggregate memory?
That's probably the reason it's called fiction. And 24 is a damn-good, entertaining piece of that. The fact that a talented filmmaker had felt the need to tick off the romance box in a well-written thriller is kind of annoying. But despite that, the benchmark for mainstream sci-fi in Kollywood has been set pretty high.