Colossal  – A Strangely Funny Character-Driven Monster Movie
The modest-sized worlds of Spanish film-maker Nacho Vigalondo operates with its own weird internal logic. He uses hybrid of high concept sci-fi ideas as a distraction or drawing factor to explore one person’s internal journey; their fears and insecurities. The end result would seem ridiculous from the logical perspective, yet remain pleasing on an emotional level. Vigalondo’s acclaimed feature-film debut Timecrimes (2007) featured a dreadful vision of time travel, where a seemingly nice person confronts dangerous versions of his own self. His next sci-fi comedy Extraterrestrial (2011) didn’t live up to the brilliance of Timecrimes. Nevertheless he once again took the big concept of alien invasion to turn it into a fairly good examination of an individual’s unique plight and the endless combination of conflicts he faces. Vigalondo’s Open Windows (2014), a techno-thriller with a flashy film-form reminding us of Brian de Palma, wasn’t as emotionally engaging as his previous short and feature films. In the recent Anne Hathaway starrer Colossal (2016), Vigalondo once again returns to idiosyncratic, genre-bending style that’s riddled with wild tonal shifts (an absurdist comedy in the first-half and a psychological horror in the second-half).
Anne Hathaway kind of reprises the medium-functioning alcoholic role (reprobate of a bohemian family) she played in Jonathan Demme’s Rachel Getting Married (2008). The little difference between that character and Colossal’s Gloria is that she plays this one with a slight comic edge. Gloria is a hard-partying, out of work New York-based blogger who arrives at her flat in the morning hungover and in confusion. Her boyfriend Tim (Dan Stevens) breaks up the relationship and asks Gloria to pack up the bags and leave. She leaves Manhattan and returns to depressed hometown Maidenhead, New Jersey and holes up in the dusty mansion her parents had left. Apart from the break-up and alcoholism, there are some hints about Gloria nursing deeper mental disturbances, which may or may not be related to the hometown. She meets the local bar owner/childhood friend Oscar (Jason Sudeikis). After an all-night drinking session, Gloria accepts to take part-time job at the bar. She wakes up next day and finds it a bit hard to believe that she confessed all her problems to Oscar. What’s harder to digest is the discovery that her idiotic drunken actions in Maidenhead has led to the death of ‘shitload of people’ in Seoul, South Korea.
In Seoul, a humongous reptilian creature is regularly (for the last few days) appearing out of nowhere and flattening few buildings, stomping few peoples, before vanishing out of thin air. Interestingly or unbelievably, this happens only when Gloria stands in at a certain time (8:05 a.m.) in the neighborhood playground. At that particular moment, somehow the drunken Gloria materializes as life-threatening monster halfway around the planet. After waking up from hangover and looking up at peculiar, absurd gestures of the monster (in news clips), Gloria wonders about her improbable synchronization with the monster. She takes Oscar and her two other drinking buddies – Garth (Tim Blake Nelson) and Joel (Austin Stowell) – to showcase what she has discovered. To their utter dismay, the monster appears as Gloria steps inside the playground and perfectly mimics her goofy actions, which is seen live all over the world. This is only the tip of wacky notions in Colossal’s narrative. Things take a sinister turn when Gloria’s doppelganger – a giant robot – appears and threatens to knowingly maim & kill the people of Seoul.
In Vigalondo’s universe, monsters always don’t operate with bad intentions and nice-looking guys can be truly toxic. Director Vigalondo’s narrative set-up lies within two contrasting sub-genres: domestic drama and monster action. He not only amalgamates (a bit unevenly) these two polarizing themes, but also transcends its rigid boundaries. We expect Gloria to re-kindle her friendship with Oscar, which may lead to romance and then she would quit drinking to start life anew. Or we expect some nice monster action (which isn’t really possible considering the severely limited budget) and find few answers to this strange phenomenon. The good thing about Colossal is that it never confirms to our expectations (it’s a fascinating thing if that’s what you seek as a viewer, otherwise the film might seem totally ludicrous). Vigalondo takes a big turn in the second-half to leave off the goofy comic tone and audaciously delve into the environment of misogyny and resentment. While we don’t find the reason behind the origination of giant reptilian and robot monsters, we do get an answer to the question: ‘what makes a monster?’ By monsters I don’t mean the giant creatures, collapsing buildings and stomping people, but the monstrosity of human beings who look outwardly nice and genial.
Oscar’s transformation into a city-squasher is more terrifying than the real manifestation of monsters. Played to perfection by Jason Sudeikis, Oscar is the proverbial nice guy, yet he embraces the tools of destruction due to strengthen his misguided efforts to wreak revenge. Caught in a constrained environment with recurring cycles of defeats, Oscar hates himself for being stuck and others for freely moving on. Hence, the battle between Gloria and Oscar provides much more depth than what the premise suggested earlier. The conflicts in the first-half explore Gloria’s insecurities, whereas the domestic drama gains an interesting feminist edge in the second-half. Beleaguered by Oscar, Gloria mildly considers the possibility to cling on to the helping hands of serious-faced ex-boyfriend Tim. But Vigalondo’s film doesn’t limit itself by showing who gets the girl. Gloria simply stands alone and conquers the monsters within and outside in order to receive true catharsis for the years of domestic abuse.
What’s good about Nacho Vigalondo’s direction is how he doesn’t lose sight of the grounded human drama, keeping the technicalities of giant monster fights in the background. In terms of subject and visual style, Colossal is as ambitious as Timecrimes. While at times there’s a sense of inconsistency in the narrative (not everything works), our interest in the premise never wanes, thanks to truly chilling moments (for eg, sequences like ‘how irresponsible one can be?’). Some may be disappointed at the dubious explanation for Gloria’s monster curse. We expect a pseudo-scientific chronicle, but what we get is a brief, vague flashback which may be says that Gloria’s subliminal fears have originated from childhood (not just from the time she came back to town). Pseudo-science may not be the right thing for the movie’s premise, but the director could have also done away with vague flashback, since it doesn’t seem to be a big emotional revelation. Nevertheless, it’s good that we don’t find definite answer to the question on ‘what does the monster represent?’ The monster may be manifestation of Gloria’s dark repressed traumas or represent her loss of self in the grip of alcoholism. Strangely in the final sequence, Gloria’s monster becomes a symbol of female empowerment. So the movie monster, thankfully, doesn’t have a single metaphorical leaning. The performances are uniformly excellent. Anne Hathaway skillfully uses the chance to play unglamorous role of a woman skirting around the edges of emotional abyss. She especially excels in fleeting gestures and brings undeniable finesse to the erratic narrative turns.
Colossal (110 minutes) is an unpredictable metaphorical tale which weirdly links the giant monster mayhem in Seoul with an American small town woman trying to revive her life. The director’s unique sensibilities inventively approach the themes of personal responsibility and pattern of abusive behavior.