Some metaphors are big. Some metaphors are small. Some are delivered with all the grace of a sledgehammer to the forehead, while some are as subtle and precise as a needle. Then there are some metaphors that are all of the above all at once, and such a metaphor drives Colossal, a film that’s part comedy, part drama, and part giant monster destroying the world.
Gloria (Anne Hathaway) is a self-described mess. She has no job, no direction, and enjoys getting drunk a bit too much. When her boyfriend throws her out of their New York City apartment, she heads back to her small hometown and gets a job in a bar run by her old school friend Oscar (Jason Sudekis). Almost simultaneously, the world is shaken by reports of a giant monster (and later a giant robot) randomly rampaging through the streets of Seoul, South Korea. Gloria finds out fairly quickly that she has a direct link to the monster itself and may or may not be responsible for the damage it does.
WARNING! MAY CONTAIN MILD SPOILERS!
Writer/director Nacho Vigalondo is known for creating films that combine sci-fi and technological tropes with character studies and tight dramas. Colossal is no different, as the film easily slides back and forth between Gloria’s own personal struggles and the mysterious origin and behavior of the kaiju terrorizing Seoul. Of course, the two are connected in ways that don’t become fully apparent until late in the film, but the metaphor here is the journey, not the destination. Much like Bong Joon-Ho’s The Host, Vigalondo uses the language of the monster film to highlight a very human story.
At first reading, the metaphor at the heart of Colossal seems a bit heavy-handed or obvious. Gloria’s self-destructive behavior, embodied by the kaiju, has broader ramifications and causes damage to innocent people. When it’s joined by the giant robot, which is as linked to Oscar as the kaiju is to Gloria, it becomes clear that something deeper is at the root of the film’s concept. Oscar is as screwed up as Gloria, although he’s not willing to admit it, and when the two start fighting over their respective behaviors, their oversized avatars end up taking out skyscrapers across the world with each swing.
What’s important here, as it is in most kaiju films, isn’t necessarily the destruction caused by the monsters as it is the response of those caught in the middle. Live feeds of the monster and robot quickly become viral video fodder, and watching the two giants wrestle while towering over mobs of terrified South Koreans quickly becomes a kind of spectator sport. It’s a subtle, metatextual touch that Vigalondo slowly weaves into the film; just as the audience is watching Gloria and Oscar’s shifting conflict and taking sides, so too are the cheering throngs of people watching the monsters. In both cases, we’re not fully aware of the impact of what we’re watching until after the heat of the moment has passed, nor are we aware of the degree of vicarious pleasure we get in watching the misfortunes of others.
The film’s small, tight cast means that the focus remains squarely on Gloria and Oscar for the most of the film’s runtime, and there could possibly be no better actors for those roles than Anne Hathaway and Jason Sudekis. Hathaway, as expected, gives a fully lived-in performance as Gloria, blessedly free of unnecessary mannerisms or tics (aside from one that turns out to be Very Important). De-glammed and vulnerable, Hathaway’s Gloria is sympathetic without being maudlin or melodramatic. She’s completely, entirely human, with all the flaws and rough edges that implies.
But it’s Sudekis that truly surprises in his performance, a slowly and subtly evolving character whose personality becomes darker and more complex the longer he’s on screen. In fact, Oscar’s behavior shifts so gradually that it becomes almost impossible to gauge the exact moments when his about-face happens. Oscar is the kind of person who, when his dark side appears, everyone believes that they should have seen it coming all along even if nobody actually could. Sudekis, even more so than Hathaway, is restrained but natural, making his emotional outbursts all the more dramatic.
The biggest problem that Colossal has, and it really is a big one, is that it takes quite a long time for the story to really pick up steam. The first half of the film has a slow, nearly mumblecore quality with an energy so subtle that it almost vanishes. Once Gloria and Oscar discover their connections to the monsters, however, the film picks up speed rapidly, even making the more languid first half seem reasonably and deliberately paced. It’s as if Vigalondo spends the first half of his film slowly going up a hill, only to descend at the mid-point, picking up momentum and force until the very last scenes.
While on its face, Colossal seems to be an offbeat, if slightly dark comedy about giant monsters, that’s only a small part of the larger work. The kaiju side of things serves as a sweet, enticing hook for a thorny but hypnotic drama where nobody is truly a protagonist or an antagonist. The flawed characters at the heart of the film are in many ways as monstrous as their titanic counterparts, but like every monster, there’s more humanity in them than we care to admit. Vigalondo may have made the most soulful film about gigantic, metropolis-smashing monsters yet.
FBOTU Score: 8 out of 10 / B+