Review: Colossal

Director: Nacho  Vigalondo

Stars: Anne Hathaway, Jason Sudeikis, Dan Stevens

While I try my hardest to avoid the cliché approach of describing a film as x meets y, I can’t help but wonder if anyone out there was sat watching Joe Swanberg’s Drinking Buddies when the thought came to them, like an imperfect diamond; what this movie really needs is some Pacific Rim-style kaiju! Because that’s pretty much the realm that Nacho Vigalondo’s new film lives in. Colossal is a meat and potatoes relationship drama with a dash of alcoholism and a whole chunk of improbable giant monster action.

Anna Hathaway (who also exec produces here) plays Gloria, a former journalist turned drunken mess who has just burned the last of her bridges with boyfriend Tim (Dan Stevens). With this final tie to New York severed, Gloria decamps to the small town she grew up in (which fortunately has a vacant house just waiting for her), but with little in the way of inspiration to change her problematic lifestyle. Her first day home she runs into former school friend Oscar (Jason Sudeikis) who now runs a local bar, hanging out after hours with a couple of, yes, drinking buddies. Gloria joins their collective as, on the other side of the world, a gigantic monster starts terrorising Seoul.

Giving Colossal its appealing quirk, it soon becomes apparent that Gloria and the monster are connected. Thanks to a fluke of space and time, when Gloria enters the town’s local playground, she generates the monster in South Korea. It moves as she moves. Unwittingly, she has been the cause of so much devastation. The movie doesn’t tread lightly when elaborating its metaphor of the collateral damage entailed in cycles of self-destruction. But the waters are muddied further when a giant robot shows up in Seoul as well. There’s more to this story and more to Gloria’s new surroundings than she had initially anticipated.

With a relatively paltry $15 million budget, the effects-heavy scenes of carnage are surprisingly well realised (though, really, not all that dynamic) for a film of this scale, and while the highly unusual premise suggests Colossal might play out as a monster movie with a difference, Vigalondo instead brings us a character-based relationship drama with a barmy supernatural twist sat in its back pocket. The exact mechanics of how and why these events are happening are alluded to vaguely, but the distinct impression is given that it isn’t really important or even the point. Vigalondo is more interested in prying open the box of who a person like Gloria is and, increasingly, who Oscar is also. These are both tragic figures largely thanks to the constraints they place on themselves.

Hathaway is superb here, confidently stealing most scenes (and she’s the focal point of practically all of them). This is her movie the way Young Adult was Charlize Theron’s. And while the two characters are oceans apart, there’s a similar city-girl-comes-down-to-earth feeling to both features. Both are also surprisingly resistant to giving their protagonists anything resembling a “Eureka!” moment in which they make the breakthrough that the audience is well aware they’re headed for. In fact, even though by the finale Gloria has a better understanding of the bad habits she lives in service of, it’s tough to tell if she’s quite committed to changing up at all. A question relating directly to her biggest weakness is left pointedly unanswered.

Though the damaging effects of unchecked alcoholism appears to be the primary target here, Colossal takes greater aim at the spirals inherent in abusive relationships and the methods by which people rationalise remaining in toxic situations. The alcoholism starts to feel like a means to an end rather than a critical story point in and of itself. Why do these people hang out? Well, because they drink.

Vigalondo does have things to say here, its clear, and Colossal carries a positive message about turning corners in abusive cycles and especially about rejecting oppressive or controlling patriarchy, but the warped method of delivery is a really curious pick. It feels as though Colossal wants to conjure the same pathos and profundity as a Charlie Kaufman joint like Being John Malkovich or even become this decade’s Donnie Darko – a perfect storm of sci-fi and human drama. In practice it never quite feels significant enough to be held in the same reverent space as these forbearers, though not for lack of trying. There’s a streak of dark humour here, along with some surprising meanness, but Vigalondo’s film never quite channels it into that special kind of magic.

Perhaps the whole thing is tainted – Marvel style – by the cavalier approach it takes to the hundreds of lives ruined in South Korea as a result of Gloria’s monster alter-ego. Granted, as soon as she makes the connection she does her best to stop all loss of life, but Colossal is rather frivolous about the damage already done, approaching it with the kind of irresponsible shrug Gloria herself might’ve adopted to explain away her drunken antics before reality came a’calling. Maybe this in itself is intentional?

For all the relative smallness of Colossal it’s still a wonderfully risky gamble to bet a film on. At a time when the vast majority of movies made to fill cinemas are franchises, remakes, prequels or reboots, anything that dares to compete for attention with this kind of spiky gusto ought to be championed. The movies need more off-the-wall surprises, and despite some fumbles Colossal has plenty of charm to see you through. It may not coalesce seamlessly (a minor B-story conspicuously disappears – so long Tim Blake Nelson) and there’s a slight sense of contradictory moralising, but Hathaway is a blast here, and there are enough good graces earned to see you through what it lacks. Drinking Buddies meets Pacific Rim anyone?

Score: 

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