Writer/Director: Nacho Vigalondo
Starring: Anne Hathaway, Jason Sudeikis, Tim Blake Nelson, Dan Stevens
A review by Billy Seguire
First and foremost, Colossal is a film about abuse. For one hour and fifty minutes, Anne Hathaway is surrounded by possessive, judgemental men with a character arc defined by her discovery of own agency in overcoming the issues and dependencies of her life. While the film does everything it can to initially discredit Hathaway’s character Gloria, writer-director Nacho Vigalondo understands the complexities of crafting a satisfying narrative to bring her story to a triumphant conclusion. Throw in the fact that there are actual gigantic monsters attacking Seoul, Korea in Colossal and I think you already know what my verdict is going to be.
It’s arguable that there is no positive male presence in the film whatsoever, which is saying something considering Hathaway has the only meaningful female role in the entire film. While not written with Hathaway in mind, I find it impossible to imagine Colossal without her in the lead. Gloria is alone in a world of men who are either abusers, passive enablers, or too weak-willed and helpless to change what’s going on. While her character definitely has issues of her own making, the weight of these men in her life is what stops her from making any progress. When the end of the film sees Gloria sharing a moment with another woman, the immediate reaction is that of resolution. The short, two-person scene that ends the film contains one of the best moments of the entire picture, and the last shot holds so much meaning on its own as a remnant of a subplot that could have carried the film on its own. Remove the Kaiju elements from the plot of Colossal and you’d still have a damn fine film.
But I’m burying the lead here. This isn’t merely a drama disguised as a Kaiju movie, but a love letter to the entire genre by design. The monster on the poster of this film isn’t illusionary or allegorical. It is real. There are monsters storming Seoul, and Colossal has a death toll of innocent lives that inflates the stakes of its narrative to a level of godlike responsibility. Vigalondo imbues his creatures with an appropriate sense of scale on first meeting, towering over characters and seen only in fleeting glimpses. It wouldn’t work nearly so well if they weren’t so immaculately designed and executed. When you get to see an unearthly monster fighting a giant robot in the streets of Seoul, it’s exactly the sort of action you want to see, but you’ll likely be too caught up in the character drama to enjoy it as you normally would.
The use of Seoul as a setting for Kaiju destruction is not anecdotal to the film. The destruction needs to be far away, removed enough from the lives of our characters and seen only on news reports and online video footage that you’re able to turn off as soon as it gets disturbing. There’s a dehumanisation and meaninglessness of the lives lost in Korea that’s only transcended by a select few who seem like they actually care. The estrangement is such an important part of the film. The destruction needed to happen on the other side of the world. It pairs perfectly with the small, stagnant little town where boredom is all there is and absolutely nothing of note ever happens locally.
So how do you take a genre about giant monsters hitting each other and make a scene emotionally resonant? You make them human. As implied by the synopsis and trailers, there is a connection between Gloria and the monsters of Colossal. Suffice it to say Gloria is the monster, her actions directly translate to the events in Seoul. In this way, Gloria’s arc as monster is also reminiscent of Godzilla, with a journey from aggressor to protector of the city, and the eventual recipient of cheers from international groupings of fans. The best way to describe the praise I want give this approach is that it’s real. These are absolutely real, fucked up people and each fight is therefore given true emotional weight. Some of the best monster fights in Colossal take place in the park without any effects at all. The sound design in these sequences is incredible. While likely also a ploy to make a small effects budget last longer, the artistic choice to show events on the small-scale so often pays off in a big way.
Keeping the story grounded on a personal level does Colossal enormous favours in allowing it to tell a deeper story, more concerned with character interactions and history than the details of its science-fiction. One of the most important sequences takes place when Gloria has sex with the hot guy of the group. To the typical film viewer, this reads as a wrong decision, a departure from the “good path” Gloria is on. Yet Vigalondo’s script doesn’t punish her for this action because it doesn’t deserve punishment. They are grown, unattached adults who have sex because they want to. It’s a perfectly healthy, valid action that serves to push Gloria’s agency forward. When characters do try to punish her for it, it begins the exposure of the facades that are built up throughout the film to reveal their true nature by the end.
It’s both refreshing and painful to see the abuse in the film come in different shades. There is an accuracy to events that disturbed me deeply, as the men in Colossal treat Gloria as if she’s a creature who can’t fend for herself. But just because some of these men are literal monsters doesn’t mean the others are saints. Gloria’s ex-boyfriend Tim isn’t a good guy just because Oscar is a sleeze. Tim tells her to get out, then tells her that her new job is beneath her. I truly disliked the way he thought he could control her life, but of course that’s the point. Later in the film, when he says “you owe me an explanation”, Gloria just scrunches up her face and says “What? No I don’t” in a way that made me extremely happy.
Throughout the entire film, Anne Hathaway plays the downtrodden, alcoholic Gloria with as much conviction and commitment as any award-winning performance, making Colossal feel like a cross between Rachel Getting Married and Godzilla. You see Hathaway play her comedic side against Sudeikis extremely well in lighter moments, and the final shot of the film is a terrific acting choice that had my theatre howling with cathartic laughter.
As Oscar, Jason Sudeikis takes his usual brand of fumbling boyish charm and subverts that persona, venturing into a much darker place than the actor usually inhabits. The film builds his abusive personality through subtle conditions of control. He tells Gloria she said things she doesn’t remember saying and gaslights her when she brings up facts that contradict his version of events. It’s so subtle that you don’t even realise he’s doing it until you look back, though I imagine previous victims of abuse would recognise his behaviours instantly. At one point, you see Sudeikis swim through a murky, long abandoned and leaf-covered pool, his eyes fixed on Gloria. In a movie with literal Kaiju, it was the most monstrous scene I saw. This honestly may have ruined any previous Sudeikis roles for me, as I can’t unsee his charm as anything other than the enabling facade Vigalondo uses it as in this film.
Of the minor characters, Tim Blake Nelson gives a pleasingly fun performance that stands out quite a bit from the other characters in the film. It’s a comedic role tinged with sadness. He is likely the most complex of all the male characters of the film, fighting addiction and desperation while still being remarkably earnest as he constantly tries to win the affection of his friends in clumsy attempts at camaraderie. A short monologue Nelson gives about how the monster never looks down, and how it should look down because it’s surrounded by buildings and people it could avoid, is remarkably touching when juxtaposed against Gloria drinking another beer.
I think the reason Colossal felt more satisfying than other films is the mastery of pacing and tone. Shortly after viewing, I was asked if the film was fun. It wasn’t fun. It was tense and anxious and upsetting, but I knew I loved it the entire time it played. The extended running time isn’t spent on any superfluous moments of monsters lunging wildly at buildings (many monster scenes are only ever implied rather than seen), but instead Vigalondo uses the time to build the impending dread that makes those moments of spectacle so cathartic. It’s the anti Zack Snyder film that earns every moment through incredible atmosphere, aided by Bear McCreary’s dark and swelling score.
Watch It. A highly original film, Colossal may actually be the best reason to actually get out and see a movie in the theatre this season. The tight focus on Gloria’s perspective makes the story a complex feminist narrative, and Vigalondo keeps an eye on both the drama and sensation to make sure each cathartic moment feels earned. While its spectacle may not completely match heavy hitters like Kong: Skull Island, Colossal is the most emotionally resonant Kaiju movie starring Anne Hathaway to come out in 2017.