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Escape From Planet Earth

Courtesy photo

Ayalaan (2024)

At one point someone asks the alien at the center of this goofy Tamil-language science fiction movie why he’s in Chennai instead of America, where aliens always invade in the movies. The alien points out that one creature isn’t exactly an invasion; and anyway Chennai is where he needs to be. A fragment of his people’s technology has made its way into the hands of an evil businessman named Aryan (Sharad Kelkar), who’s using it to drill into the Earth’s core in search of a new sustainable energy source. Only, lots of people have died already because of the technology; and if he does succeed in drilling through, the whole planet will explode. So Tattoo (played in body capture by Venkat Senguttuvan and voiced by Siddharth) has chosen to reveal himself to the most obvious person to render assistance – Tamizh (Sivakarthikeyan, who’s terrific), a failed organic farmer who’s currently working as a kind of party clown. But while he’s bad at business, Tamizh has a kind heart, something Tattoo’s people have been told didn’t exist on Earth. But the emphasis on kindness doesn’t prevent the movie from a genuine nastiness that you just don’t want in a kids’ movie.

This is the most C.G.I.-heavy Indian movie ever made and it looks fantastic. The spaceship is cool; the alien technology is clever; and there’s a surprisingly strong emotional connection between Tamizh and Tattoo, who has an unusually matter-of-fact presence (and a girlfriend he misses on his home planet). But there’s also way, way more violence in “Ayalaan” than you’d expect, and not the knockaround kind. What the villainess Eliza (Isha Koppikar) does to Tamizh right before the intermission had the little girls behind me crying out that it was too scary. In the second half violence only escalates, not limited to a serious fight between Aryan and Tamizh in a planetarium in front of hundreds of little eyes. Considering that, in the opening song-and-dance number, Tamizh encourages children to be grateful for what they have, this is all unexpectedly dark. And that darkness is not the only clue we’re not in Kansas anymore – Tattoo first meets one of Tamizh’s colleagues, Tyson (Yogi Babu), as he’s stepping out of the shower; and the only female lead, Tara (Rakul Preet Singh), is sidelined into a girlfriend part despite being a science teacher. Tattoo is right in the middle, sometimes literally, as Tara and Tamizh fall in love; and it’s his appreciation of their burgeoning romantic relationship that changes how he feels about humans.

This doesn’t minimize how many torture scenes director R. Ravikumar (who cowrote the scripts with K. Manikandan) chose to include though; and these go far, far beyond Mel Brooks putting Kermit the Frog in an electric chair in “The Muppet Movie.” Mr Ravikumar must also have been furious at the ending of “RRR,” which shares some similarities in its appetite for violence and message of friendship. “Ayalaan’s” message of kindness and mutual respect is well and truly lost by the time the 40th punch is thrown; and all the silly hijinks and funny dance routines are overshadowed by the sight of a screaming child surrounded by flames. An environmental message of respect for all living things should not have devolved into such a clichéd ending, though perhaps it was figured the littlest audiences members would have checked out by then. “Ayalaan” has been planned as the first of a trilogy; let’s hope any sequels are not quite so deathly seriously, with the emphasis on death.

One last thing: a significant supporting role belongs to an American Ufologist, played by a Welsh actor named David Broughton-Davies. I spent a long time wondering why the movie never mentions how a white American guy became fluent in Tamil, until it occurred to me that this question would never have occurred to me as a child. The world presented to children is the only world there is; and this is why cliches around violence are so important to avoid in art aimed at kids. If we want kindness and acceptance of all living things, it would behoove us to make art that actually does that, not just says it does.


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