You’ve been there. It’s your worst day and, in a low moment, you lose control and do something you regret. Maybe you were just having too good a time or perhaps you awaken later with a cringing feeling. It’s a universal sensation, but the ingenuity of Nacho Vigalondo’s Colossal is that it gives voice to struggles of self-control and shame in a clever and exceedingly cathartic way. That it also happens to be the most entertaining giant monster movie in decades simply stands as a kaiju-sized bonus.
Indeed, Colossal has a crackerjack of a high-concept that is pretty thoroughly delivered upon throughout: Anne Hathaway’s Gloria, a very sociable yet struggling millennial, is also inadvertently able to control the actions and thoughts of a giant Godzilla-sized monster on the other side of the world. And every time she stands on her literal old stomping grounds from childhood at seven in the morning, this creature will appear in downtown Seoul, South Korea to mimic her every movements.
These reflexes can be from scratching her head to getting down into some wacky interpretive dance. Either way, it almost always runs the risk of killing hundreds if she takes more than a few steps in any given direction. And unfortunately when Gloria has more than a few drinks at the bar she works at down the street, she might forget the whole thing and come plowing right through.
In essence both a giant monster movie and an indie dramedy about the grim prospect of failing and moving home, Colossal is a melding of two familiar narratives that here forms something subversively fresh and pointed in its easygoing, yet scathing, wit.
For a little more context, Gloria is a New York transplant who has a really bad day even before she realizes she’s in the midst of a lingering hangover. Waking up to discover that her longtime boyfriend Tim (Dan Stevens) has decided they’ll take a break—he’s also gone to the trouble of packing her things for her—she is forced to immediately move somewhere. Anywhere. And as a 30-something Manhattanite without a job and a place to stay, she does the only rational thing: she moves home.
Her sleepy small town is more or less the same since she left after graduation, albeit both of her parents have passed away, leaving her an empty house to crash in. There’s also the perennial nice guy from the down the street named Oscar (Jason Sudeikis). In the past, Oscar’s father ran the only major bar in town, and now Oscar does the same, offering Gloria a job.
Despite the pleasantness of an all-American watering hole and all the old fashioned charms that implies, including Tim Blake Nelson and Austin Stowell as the typical bar flies, it’s obviously not a great place for Gloria if she really is going to get ahold of her problems, or at least prove to herself she isn’t the total train wreck Tim assumes (he still pesters her on Skype).
And then there is the aforementioned added wee wrinkle that on her daily walk home from work every morning, she inadvertently summons a titan of mayhem from the depths of the Yellow Sea. Behold and tremble, for she has become Death, the Destroyer of Worlds… and hey, her new bar friends think it’s a pretty nifty party trick too!
Colossal is the best kind of indie laugher, because often the giggles come from unexpectedly layered places. The picture certainly makes the most out of presenting a monster film in which the creature is worlds away from its protagonists. Recent Godzilla spectacles might pay lip-service to the idea of the big guy being a force of nature, but Colossal represents the far more common reaction folks have to that. Unless they’re directly in the elements’ path, they often shrug. People may be glued to CNN, social media, and even YouTube, but the fact that there’s a giant monster stepping on a foreign city becomes as much a disconnected entertainment for the film’s denizens as how so many other historic tragedies become another triviality at a bar—a slightly scarier version of March Madness.
But the real shrewdness of the material is Vigalondo populating that world with an overachieving cast that completely embrace the ironic detachment: Stevens is deliciously smug as the condescending ex who never goes away, and Nelson brings some actual sweetness and warmth to a guy who’s probably been sitting in the same spot telling that awful story for 20 years. But it’s Sudeikis who clearly is most delighted to be here among the supporting players; he devours his role, subverting so many clichés he’s already played in a string of only superficially similar parts that he’s a revelation. In fact, the third act gives him his best material since SNL.
Of course the movie belongs to Hathaway, who apparently sought out this screenplay. And for good reason. A naturally charismatic performer whose talent comes from how effortlessly she appears to embody any emotion, the star cultivates a distinctive departure with Gloria. Here is a protagonist whose life and relationships intentionally play against type.
Gloria is no doubt a mess, and probably an alcoholic to boot. However, Hathaway is never throwing a pity party for the character, nor is the film she’s in judging her. These are her choices, and even when they’re bad ones—like running home and working in a field with her preferred vice—she is not a victim or a martyr. The film refuses to offer easy answers for Gloria, allowing her to own her mistakes, including when she lets a giant monster tumble and fall onto an army more puzzled than scared at why a towering demon would dance the funky chicken.
Her ovoid eyes also upon occasion can channel destruction all their own when confronted with a much more human, and insidious, monstrosity.
Colossal’s refusal to be easily quantified in terms of genre, as well as never allowing its characters be placed in archetypal boxes, is what makes the movie so enticing and resonant. Even truly feminist. It’s why after a crowd-pleasing finale, there is still an unspoken acknowledgement that a monster, be it in South Korea or at the bottom of a glass, can always rise again. To see that on the big screen is more than worth raising a glass for.