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Film Review: Colossal

Colossal (2017; Directed by Nacho Vigalondo)

Is Colossal, Spanish filmmaker Nacho Vigalondo’s Frankenmovie hybrid of indie dramedies of youthful ennui and mass-destructive Asian kaiju monster films, a good movie or not? I confess that I’m not entirely certain of the answer after watching it. It’s certainly unique, or perhaps just uniquely derivative. It’s got ideas aplenty, but its gaps in internal logic gradually grow too wide to be effectively spanned, its characters barely hold together under even mild scrutiny, its jokes increasingly fail to land, and its more uneasy implications lack consistency.

In broad concept, Colossal follows a directionless 30-something unemployed web content writer Gloria (Anne Hathaway) who, having been dumped and asked to move out of of her New York City apartment by her patronizing professional boyfriend Tim (Dan Stevens) after one too many alcohol-fueled all-nighters, moves back to her sleepy New Hampshire hometown and takes up residence in her parents’ vacant home. Falling in swiftly with her old school friend Oscar (Jason Sudeikis), who now owns and operates a local bar, Gloria’s aimless into-the-wee-hours unemployed drinking continues unabated until she wakes one day to the globally-reported news of a skyscraper-sized monster mysteriously appearing and then just as mysteriously disappearing in Seoul, South Korea.

Gloria quickly realizes that there is something very familiar about this monster that is captivating the world. Very, very familiar, in fact: the monster is Gloria herself, magically transposed into towering kaiju form halfway across the world. Although I shan’t spoil the expository details (which begin to be revealed as clever little delights and incorporate childhood psychological scars, but become ever more head-scratchingly incomprehensible), Gloria determines that her movements in the sandbox of a school playground at a precise time each morning are mirrored by the creature in Korea (one scene demonstrating this is visually framed as a bit of a technical in-joke on performance-capture CGI practices). And not only her sandbox movements, but Oscar’s as well, his building-sized avatar manifesting in Seoul as a giant robot.

From this fuzzily-defined but nonetheless compelling bedrock idea, Colossal moves in unpredictable and not entirely fruitful directions. Vigalondo (who wrote the script as well as directed it) turns the old friends into rivals and even enemies, their differences over their life’s ambitions and their clashing self-images transposed into Godzilla-sized city-levelling physical battles between their kaiju avatars. A big problem with the application of this metaphorical device is that Vigalondo and Sudeikis are sloppy and inconsistent with how exactly Oscar is meant to be feeling about and relating to Gloria.

Oscar is given big, broad, neon-lit creepy stalker warning signs through the first act or two, suggesting that he’s romantically/sexually interested in Gloria and attempting to curry her favour: he picks her up and takes her to his bar without even asking if she wants to go there, admits to keeping tabs on her online over the years, and makes daily gifts of furniture to fill her empty squat pad. He asks her to wait tables at his bar, and acts on her suggestion to open up an unused western-themed portion of the establishment that he had boarded up. His behaviour towards her – in real life and via their kaiju avatars – takes a negative turn after she hooks up with his handsome but dim buddy Joel (Austin Stowell), and descends into disturbing recklessness when Tim shows up in town to convince Gloria to come back to the city. But his actions in the last act, as well as Gloria openly (but only semi-convincingly) accusing him of being jealous of her for being bright and capable enough to escape their New Hampshire nowheresville while he remained stuck there, call this angle into question.

Sudeikis himself is a big part of Colossal‘s problem in this vein. A decent choice for the good-natured, uncomplicated drinking buddy role, he strains beyond his ability when asked to become a villainous asshole. Miscasting hints aside, however, it’s not entirely clear that Vigalondo doesn’t intend Oscar and Gloria’s conflict to be essentially comic and tongue-in-cheek. There are certainly purposely funny moments undercutting the epic quality of their head-to-head face-off (for a low-budget film, the CG monster effect are fairly good – the nocturnal setting in Seoul helps smooth over the fine details – but more noticeably low-quality when computer animation is used for flames in Oscar’s bar). Hyper-dramatic bursts of Bear McCreary’s score and Vigalondo’s use of slow-motion are sending up heavy-handed Hollywood blockbuster ponderousness, for sure, and the virtual-reality surface of a literal child’s sandbox is surely couched in similar terms.

There’s a growth in self-determination angle to Gloria’s arc in play as well, and an undercooked feminism to her relations to the men in the film. Tim claims to love Gloria but habitually condescends to her, shames her for her lack of drive and ambition, and pretends to protectiveness without properly recognizing her vulnerabilities; Oscar insinuates Gloria back into his life but is not thoughtful or empathetic enough to really understand why he wants her around or what light she throws on his bruised male ego, and becomes an implacable antagonist rather than letting her leave him again; and poor, pretty Joel goes to bed with Gloria at her instigation but hasn’t the steel to stand up to Oscar’s vindictive turn against her.

In the end, Gloria stands up to Oscar and wins the day, locating a power and control in the outlandish kaiju-related circumstances that he leveraged against her. This theme of a put-upon woman pushing back against the men who tossed her about between them must have been one of the elements that drew Hathaway (an executive producer on the film whose headlining star-wattage helped get the film financed and made) to Vigalondo’s screenplay in the first place. Like so many of the ideas in Colossal, however, this one never really manages to land a punch. Moreover, Vigalondo’s plotting often seems more driven by his willingness to move from one such half-cooked idea to another, rather than by comprehensible character psychology or coherent rules of his fantastical conceit.

Much more of Colossal is shambolic in this manner than is advisable. Vigalondo even brings in the great, underrated character actor Tim Blake Nelson (whose gloriously cartoonish bumpkin sidekick Delmar O’Donnell in O Brother, Where Art Thou? is one of my favourite comic performances in any movie ever) and renders him as a tweaking, rambling second-fiddle to Oscar without even a hint of a funny line. Nacho Vigalondo is revealed by Colossal as a filmmaker with a firm hand at times and a shaky grip at others, sometimes within the same scene or in treatment of the same theme. On which side of the line does Colossal as a whole fall? I confess to still not really being confident in my conclusion either way, but would ultimately recommend giving the film a shot to make up your own mind on the matter.

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