I finally caught up with Colossal on Amazon Prime Video last night, and I was so taken with it that I decided to write a bit about it. It’s a bit spoilery, so please read with caution if you’ve not seen the film!
What would happen if your inner demons manifested themselves as real-life monsters? That’s the central question posed by the thoughtful and thrilling Colossal, written and directed by Nacho Vigalondo. Anne Hathaway plays Gloria, an unemployed blogger whom we meet just as her fractured life finally shatters. Unable able to cope with her alcoholism and self-destructive lifestyle, Gloria’s boyfriend Tim (Dan Stevens) kicks her out of their New York apartment, forcing her to move back to her tiny New England hometown. It is here that Gloria runs into Oscar (Jason Sudeikis), a childhood friend with whom she lost touch, quickly accepting his offer of a job at his bar and taking full advantage of the easy access to alcohol it provides. Upon emerging wearily from yet another blackout drinking session, Gloria discovers that her latest binge has had consequences far worse than her hangover. It just so happens that when she steps on the right spot in a local children’s playground at 8:05 US time, an enormous reptilian monster materialises in Seoul, Korea and mimics her every action, turning her drunken stumble home through the park into a rampage that destroyed entire neighbourhoods and killed hundreds. We’ve all been there, right?
Hathaway is quietly great as Gloria, a woman who knows the damage her lifestyle is causing herself and those around her but can’t quite bring herself to stop. There’s a twitchy quality to Gloria, the kind of nervous energy caused by that constant, unknowing fear of whatever it is she might have done while wasted the previous night. Hathaway’s performance isn’t showy or flashy, but her easy charisma softens a character that could have easily been frustrating in hands of a different performer. Gloria remains winning and charming even throughout her most destructive behaviour, and her character is treated with great empathy by Vigalondo’s screenplay. She’s a screw-up, yes, but we clearly see the person she could be and root for her to find redemption. More importantly, we recognise the lack of self-worth that is the root of so many of her issues, and we see how that insecurity leaves her vulnerable to abuse and manipulation by men like Oscar.
Oscar seems to have everything together on the surface, but in reality he’s struggling with the same fundamental lack of control over his life that Gloria is. Sudeikis turns in a surprisingly nuanced performance, lacing Oscar’s initial affability and generosity towards Gloria with hints of darker ulterior motives. Trapped in his tiny home town and stuck running the business he inherited from his father, Oscar is a man certain he deserves greater things, his dissatisfaction and anger having festered for years. When Gloria reappears in Mainhead, Oscar sees in her an opportunity to finally have power over someone, over anyone, and he wastes no time at all finding ways to exert control over her. Matters worsen when Oscar realises that he has a similar ability to Gloria, with a gigantic robot appearing in Seoul whenever he sets foot on the playground. It is then that a man tormented by his own smallness suddenly finds himself able to make an enormous impact on the world and, unsurprisingly, he doesn’t react to this discovery with grace.
That giant robot is merely a hyper-literal projection of the monster already hiding within Oscar, who represents the dark truth of the pernicious ‘nice guy’ stock character. For decades, Hollywood has championed male protagonists who silently pine for intimate relationships with their female friends, hiding their true intentions until the objects of their affection realise the error of their ways and begin to reciprocate their feelings. Colossal shines a light on this trope and exposes the ugliness and entitlement that drives men like Oscar, who claims to care about Gloria’s wellbeing but quickly reveals himself to be interested solely in his own needs. He delights in the opportunity to have her rely on him for furniture and employment, relishing the growing power imbalance between the two of them and steadily chipping away at her agency. Oscar wants Gloria to feel like she owes him something so that when he begins to lash out verbally and physically, she sees no other option but to stay with him. This is classic abusive behaviour, and it’s deeply moving to see Gloria discover within herself the strength to overcome it, even if it’s expressed through the medium of CGI monster fights.
That uneasy duality, though, is what makes Colossal work so beautifully, with scenes of small-town Americana contrasting surreally with images of giant creatures dancing and fighting in Seoul. Though he’s dealing with heavy themes, Vigalondo deftly weaves just enough humour throughout the film so that there’s a laugh for every emotional gut punch, the inherent silliness of the concept never distracting from the message it’s being used to convey. The film only loses steam somewhat when it delves into Gloria and Oscar’s origin story, flashing back to reveal that they gained their abilities as children during a freak lightning storm. This sequence feels like it comes from a place of second-guessing it’s audience, of assuming that viewers won’t accept the ‘giant monster’ premise at face value and will at some point need a rational explanation for for it, whatever that would look like. But Colossal is at it’s best when it operates as a literal depiction of a clear metaphor, with no more regard for real-world metaphysics than a classic fairy tale, and to attempt to ground its story in reality feels unnecessary. Vigalondo also shows himself to have something of a tin ear for expositional dialogue, with characters sometimes going into full Greek chorus mode as they verbalise each other’s histories and motivations.
These weaknesses do little to detract from the success of the film, however. Mashing together as it does so many genres and ideas, Colossal could so easily have been a disaster, but Vigalondo never loses sight of his fascinating characters among the more heightened elements of the film. Aided by achingly human performances from Hathaway and Sudeikis, Vigalondo delivers a visceral, exhilarating experience that also has something incredibly important to say about modern gender dynamics. From start to finish, Colossal is a roaring success.