“Whoever fights monsters should see to it that in the process he does not become a monster. And if you gaze long enough into an abyss, the abyss will gaze back into you,” wrote Friedrich Nietzsche. For Gloria, a New York-based internet writer with a serious alcohol problem in Nacho Vigalondo’s Colossal, that abyss happens to be a huge TV screen her old elementary school friend Oscar has set up in the living room of the house that used to belong to her now retired parents; and that monster is a huge kaiju that has appeared out of nowhere and is wreaking havoc in Seoul, South Korea. It doesn’t take long for Gloria to realize that the monster is a manifestation of her own troubles.
Vigalondo accomplishes the impossible in blending two very distinctive (and completely different) genres: the Suindance-friendly American indie film and Japanese monster movies. Like his contemporary Ibero-American filmmakers –J.A. Bayona, Guillermo del Toro and Fede Alvarez, to name a few– Vigalondo uses genre tropes as a metaphor, if you will, of the human condition. A condition that in Colossal manifests itself in the way audiences consume, whether through their smartphones or on a flat screen in a bar, the mayhem taking place on the other side of the globe; in the way characters treat each other; and in the way some of them, in the end, assume responsibility (or not) and take control (or not) of their lives. Watching Colossal, I couldn’t help but draw parallels to Bayona’s grossly underrated and underappreciated (at least here in the United States) A Monster Calls, the story of a young boy who tries to cope with his mother’s imminent death by beckoning a giant tree-like monster who tells him three stories with the condition that the boy shares his own nightmares. Here, Bayona, as in his previous films, uses genre tropes to explore the bonds that unite a mother and her child and how we deal with grief and loss. The tree monster and the stories he tells are as much a manifestation of the child’s id as the kaiju is of Gloria’s in Colossal.
As the film opens, Gloria (Anne Hathaway) is kicked out by her British boyfriend (Downton Abbey’s Dan Stevens) from the Manhattan apartment they share after another long night of binge-drinking with her friends. Once she moves into her parents’ old home in a small town in upstate New York, she runs into Oscar (Jason Sudeikis), now the owner of the local bar. Not only does Oscar offer to help her with the move but he also offers her a job as a waitress. And so every night, when the bar is closed, Gloria drinks her life away alongside Oscar and his friends Joel (Austin Stowell) and Garth (Tim Blake Nelson). Gloria begins to faces that deep abyss when, after one long night of uninhibited drinking and stumbling along a nearby park afterwards, she turns on the TV to see news of the devastation left behind by this monster that appears out of nowhere evrynight, at precisely 8:05 pm Korea time. A monster that Gloria soon realizes mimics her every move, including her nervous tic of scratching the top of her head. Horror and panic ensue, then amusement as she discovers that not only does she have a connection to this monster but that that neighborhood park is a stand-in for Seoul. Sounds outrageous, right? But that’s the beauty about the matter-of-fact way Vigalondo tells his story. It is not only feasible and probable…IT JUST IS. Gloria can’t keep her discovery secret for long and shares it with her three new friends, one of whom shows up in Seoul as a giant Mazinger-Z like robot.
The story takes a dark turn once Oscar shows his true colors. He is more emotionally damaged than Gloria, a by-product of a patriarchal, misogynist, disdainful and resentful culture. How this plays into the film’s climax, I’ll leave you to discover. Suffice it to say that one of the Colossal’s many pleasures is seeing how it slowly but surely turns into a tale of female empowerment.
Like Ray Bradbury, Neil Gaiman and Guillermo del Toro before him, Vigalondo knows how to ground his story in the everyday. Here he introduces us to characters that are believably flawed. He never judges them, no matter how badly, and madly, they behave. And while he never forgets that this is also a monster movie, Vigalondo has fun playing with our expectations; this definitely ain’t Kong: Skull Island. As much as I enjoyed that Saturday afternoon monster mash, I found the lo-fi charm of Colossal’s action sequences and special effects far more powerful and moving and awesome.
I have to acknowledge that I have deliberately avoided all of Jason Sudeikis’ films and TV projects; his brand of comedy is simply not my cup of tea. So nothing prepared me for what I saw onscreen: an actor who confidently navigated the sudden shift in personalities the script requires of him. One moment he is a pleasant, neighborly, friendly, no-nonsense small town business owner you wouldn’t mind being your next neighbor; the next a resentful, vicious and entitled bully you wouldn’t hesitate in petitioning a restraining order against. His performance is transfixing, perfectly hitting every single note and register required of him.
And so is Hathaway. She pulls out all stops in portraying this flawed, self-destructive, yet charming character. It’s easy to take Hathaway for granted, given the ease with which she has played the everywoman in films like The Devil Wears Prada, Becoming Jane and, hell, even The Dark Knight Rises. Vigalondo has given her an even juicier role, one that has allowed her to spread her wings like never before. It is her darkest, most complex part since her lead turn as a young woman who’s let out of rehab for one weekend to attend her sister’s wedding in Jonathan Demme’s Rachel Getting Married (2008), a role that she attacks with brio.
Colossal is almost perfect. I could nit-pick a couple of scenes or plot points but I won’t. Vigalondo has delivered a unique story that takes genre conventions to a whole new level. It’s refreshing, it’s touching, it’s fun and it’s sinister and, most of all, it’s uncompromising in its vision. Colossal is not only Vigalondo’s best picture since his opera prima Timecrimes (Los cronocrímenes, 2007). It is also one of the best films of the year.