FimScene — opens Thursday, April 27
Spanish filmmaker Nacho Vigalondo’s latest film, Colossal, is at once an intimate substance abuse drama and a kaiju-style creature feature. Much like his previous feature films, including Timecrimes (2007) and Extraterrestrial (2011), Vigalondo is able to strike this seemingly-odd balance with surprising grace simply by setting a very real, very interior story against a distant backdrop of intense science fiction. Even the film’s title is designed to mislead viewers to believe they’re in for a larger-than-life spectacle when, in reality, the most monstrous elements of Colossal are all too human.
Gloria (Anne Hathaway) is, by any metric, a total mess. She is first shown entering her apartment after a long night of heavy partying, trying to justify her behavior to her frustrated boyfriend, Tim (Dan Stevens). It becomes clear this scene is a frequent occurrence and Tim has finally had enough — to the point he’s packed Gloria’s bags and ordered her to move out. With no place to go, Gloria returns to her hometown and moves into her childhood home which stands vacant because her parents have moved away with plans to use the house as a rental property.
Gloria soon runs into a former schoolmate, Oscar (Jason Sudeikis). Very quickly Oscar begins to intertwine his life with Gloria’s — he brings furniture for her barren house, gives her a job at his bar and introduces her to his friends. Initially this all seems like a great act of generosity, but soon it becomes clear Oscar has some major control issues. Control is a rarefied commodity in Colossal, and the film focuses on who has it, who cedes it and how it’s wielded and abused.
I am reluctant to say too much about the film’s supernatural elements, but given it’s already been revealed this is a kaiju film (giant monsters attacking cities, i.e. Godzilla) some explanation is warranted. Returning from a drunken night at Oscar’s bar, Gloria walks through a park. The next day she awakens to the news a giant monster materialized in Seoul, South Korea, and began wreaking havoc. Lives were lost, buildings destroyed and the population was terrorized.
When Gloria watches the footage of the event she notices the monster exhibiting a nervous tic mirroring one of her own. Gloria investigates and discovers she is somehow controlling the monster. The reality soon sets in that the damage and loss of life are a direct result of her drunken irresponsibility. Unable to cope with this knowledge on her own, Gloria proceeds to share her discovery with Oscar and his friends and things go bad very quickly.
Colossal succeeds because Vigalondo is a master at setting up the rules for his sci-fi and then keeping the film’s action within very narrow boundaries both physically and supernaturally. Extraterrestrial, for example, is a rom-com taking place almost exclusively in an apartment building. The sci-fi element, a massive UFO, is shown mostly through the backdrop of the apartment’s windows. The UFO forces the characters to remain quarantined indoors and, though it drives some of the plot, mostly the film focuses on the evolving love story between the two leads.
Similarly, Colossal deploys its kaiju elements sparely to heighten tension. Despite her powerlessness and lack of self-control in her personal life, Gloria comes to realize her avatar is a gigantic monster capable of toppling buildings. When she finally begins to exercise her power with intention Gloria liberates herself from those who would seek to control her.
For all of its unique, challenging and entertaining elements, Colossal contains a few problematic holes which are never addressed by the film. On its surface this is a film about a reckless American whose bad behavior results in mass death and destruction in Korea. Given the 6,000+ mile distance, the cultural and language barriers and her self-centeredness, there is ultimately little impact on Gloria’s life or really any consequences for her actions at all. The casual way in which the lives of Koreans are taken without much more than a pained expression is uncomfortable. Is this a comment on America’s role in global politics? If so, what is it trying to say? Why isn’t the Seoul neighborhood Gloria’s monster returns to, time and again, evacuated or more tightly controlled?
At this point the image of masses of East Asian people pointing up at and fleeing a giant monster attack is a cinematic cliché with racial overtones. What are viewers to make of the obvious but unexamined racial component of the film? There are some puzzling elements to Colossal that viewers will be left to ponder because, again, Vigalondo keeps his cinematic universes so tight they don’t allow for interference from the outside world.
All of that said, Colossal is definitely worth watching. The tight direction and entertainingly bizarre plot aside, the performances in the film are surprisingly good. This holds especially true for Jason Sudeikis, whose work in Colossal reveals the actor has a previously unseen dramatic range. Oscar is a complicated villain, and his controlling manipulation of Gloria speaks volumes about the current state of gender politics. It also cannot be overstated that Anne Hathaway is good in everything she does and continues that trend here. Colossal is a unique, entertaining and thought-provoking film that defies genre as well as any attempts at trite summation. All I can say is it’s unlike anything else playing today and that alone makes it worth your time.
Colossal opens tonight, April 27, at FilmScene with a special 10 p.m. advance preview, complete with monster finger puppet giveaway. The run formally opens tomorrow at 4 p.m. Tickets are $6.50-9.