I admit that a tiny screen on an airplane is no way to watch a movie that, if it is respected for anything, is respected for special effects. But flashy stunts and explosions, unbacked by compelling story or characters, cannot save an otherwise terrible movie. And Ra.One is nothing if not a terrible movie.
Shekhar (Shah Rukh Khan) is an earnest, nerdy video-game designer. Desperate to please his son Prateek (Armaan Verma), an 11-year-old with an overdeveloped sense of cool, Shekhar designs a game in which the villain is more powerful than the hero. Prateek is duly impressed, both with the game's awesome villain, Ra.One, and the nifty full-body virtual reality suit he has to don to play the game. Soon, though, Ra.One comes to life, breaking out of the game and killing both Shekhar and his colleague Akashi (Tom Wu) - and hell-bent on Prateek. The only way to save the boy and his mother, Soniya (Kareena Kapoor), is to bring the game's hero, G.One (also Shah Rukh Khan) to life to take on Ra.One in his most powerful form (Arjun Rampal).
If that summary sounds thin, it's because the story is thinner than onion skin, unburdened by any nuance or substance. There is more plot device than coherent explanation involved in bringing the game's characters to life. That would be forgivable if the characters had any character, but for the most part, they do not. Unlike most better superhero movies, there is no backstory to drive either the hero G.One or the villain Ra.One. They are "good" and "bad", respectively, only because the movie declares them to be so. There is an attempt at a message in the half-baked, confusing plot device called a HART - I can't remember what the acronym stands for - that both Ra.One and G.One rely upon for their life force, or something. This yields some watery symbolic nonsense about whether someone without a heart can truly be destroyed, but this is more incoherent technobabble than trenchant allegory.
The movie's failure to provide any depth, any driver for conflict other than the arbitrary designation of goodness and evil, is particularly frustrating in the case of its villain, Ra.One. While he may be techincally a case of artificial intelligence gone wrong, Ra.One in fact has no intelligence at all, no emergent properties of any interest. He wants to kill Prateek only because he is programmed to. This is hardly an avatar of the Raavan of legend, whose intellect was so great that he mastered the Vedas in a single day. The movie does makes a feeble nod at connecting Ra.One to the mythical demon he is named for; in one scene, Ra.One encounters a Dussehra festival, learns about his namesake, and questions whether a villain who needs to be vanquished year after year is really vanquished at all. This one weak attempt at allegory hardly even rises to the level of lip service, and it's far from satisfying; it feels tacked-on and phoned-in, and if anything, it throws into relief how much more the movie could have done with the idea beyong choosing evocative names for its video-game automata.
As for the dual heroes, Shekhar and G.One, they don't offer much more either in the way of substance or entertainment value. Shekhar is presented in broad strokes that, I suppose, are supposed to invoke humorous southern-Indian sterotypes; the irony of doing so alongside a running joke in which the Sino-Indian Akashi repeatedly protests that "not all Chinese are Jackie Chan!" seems lost on the filmmakers. At any rate, Shekhar is not so much a yokel as he is just an idiot. G.One is equally dopey; his cartoonish attempts at being a real live boy (à la Pinnocchio, or Data) are perhaps meant to be sweet, but the rendering is just cloying and stupid. If Ra.One has a redeeming feature, it is the occasionally charming moments of tenderness between Shekhar and Soniya; it is always refreshing when a movie offers a relatively mature married couple. Yet these, like the hints of mythological substance, are too few and far between; Kareena Kapoor is especially underutilized here.
Even the songs, so often the redemption of an otherwise forgettable film, fall frustratingly short in Ra.One. "Criminal" and "Chammak challo" are too similar in sound and picturization - "Chammak challo" is marginally the better of the two, but the movie certainly does not need both. The most charitable interpretation of this directorial choice is that the two songs are a kind of bookending, an attempt transform or develop the robotic G.One toward Shekhar-ness. But there is nothing textual to justify such a generous interpretation of the two songs, which are more likely just there to pack twice the Shah Rukh Khan, twice the scantily-clad gori dancers, twice the big production numbers, twice the Akon songs into the movie. (Incidentally, I can't even hear Akon's voice without immediately thinking of his hilarious Lonely Island number "I Just Had Sex" - not an association one expects to have when watching a Hindi film!) The soundtrack does include one superb song, "Bhare naina," definitely a keeper - but when the lights come up and the inanity of Ra.One finally and mercifully ends, I can't shake the feeling that even on an airplane there are much more satisfying ways to kill a couple of hours.