If there were a gambling site where you could go to make bets on how people are bound to react to individual movies, the money-making gambit of the season would be slapping your life savings on “Colossal is really going to piss people off.” How many people, and how pissed off they’re going to get, will probably depend on whether the advertising gets more specific and transparent about what the movie actually is. From the currently available teaser, Nacho Vigalondo’s latest movie (after 2014’s insane Elijah Wood / Sasha Grey stalker movie Open Windows and various horror shorts for the V/H/S and ABCs Of Death series) looks like a playful magical-realist comedy about a woman discovering she’s somehow controlling a giant monster on the other side of the planet. It’s sort of that, for a few minutes at a time. The rest of the time, it’s a strong, angry statement about gender relationships that seems primed to alienate roughly half its audience.
What’s the genre?
Painful relationship drama, except with kaiju.
What’s it about?
Gloria (Anne Hathaway) is an unhappy, unemployed, self-absorbed alcoholic New Yorker who’s just been understandably dumped by her exasperated boyfriend Tim (The Guest’s Dan Stevens). Lacking other options, she heads back to her small hometown to live in her parents’ old, empty house. Soon she runs into childhood friend Oscar (Jason Sudeikis) and his buddies Joel (Austin Stowell) and Garth (Tim Blake Nelson), gets a job at Oscar’s bar, and settles in to what seems like a cheerful life of blackout drinking and low-stakes hanging out. Then a giant lizard-like monster starts terrorizing Seoul, and Gloria accidentally discovers the monster is mirroring her movements. (The monster prompted a lawsuit from Godzilla rights-holder Toho Co. after Vigalondo ill-advisedly described the movie as “the cheapest Godzilla movie ever.” The lawsuit was settled in 2015.) Having complete control of a giant monster sounds like a fantasy come true, especially for a woman who’s so clearly out of control in so many other ways. But the burden becomes a tremendous emotional burden for Gloria, who isn’t even equipped to handle the minimal responsibility of blowing up her own air mattress. And things get much worse when one of the men in her life starts using the monster situation to blackmail her, trying to force her into an unwanted, squirmy intimacy.
What’s it really about?
Abusive relationships, all the sleazy manipulative tactics abusers use, and also kaiju.
But is it any good?
To quote The Simpsons, “Short answer, yes with an if; long answer, no with a but.” Vigalondo pitched the movie as “Godzilla meets Being John Malkovich,” a description that’s both exciting to a “shut up and take my money” degree, and not entirely accurate. The Being John Malkovich parallels are there, given the film’s heady high-concept weirdness and its inexplicable magical plot hook. But Colossal has much more in common with the Jason Reitman / Diablo Cody movie Young Adult, another movie about a caustically selfish alcoholic licking her wounds in her small hometown, and running into an old acquaintance who’s unhealthily obsessed with her. That movie was divisive — it’s bold and funny in the ugliest of ways, and the protagonist (played by Charlize Theron) is beautifully acted, but it’s also about a repulsive character who never repents, and ultimately doubles down on her self-absorption. Colossal’s heroine is only slightly softer. Like Reitman, Vigalondo has no interest in the trite “struggling city person finds healing in the slow pace of a small town” tropes, and no interest in softening his lead character into rote likability when he could make her distinctive instead.
Gloria is intriguing because she’s so damaged and has so many hurdles in her way. (And also: kaiju!) But she often isn’t particularly sympathetic, and neither is anyone around her. Colossal is unmissably harsh on its male characters, all of whom are sheepish and ineffectual at absolute best, and downright malevolent at worst. There are no upsides to relationships in this movie, or really to men in general.
And there’s a really uncomfortable and unexamined side to the kaiju phenomenon, which has some vague and hand-waved number of anonymous Koreans dying every night as the price of Gloria’s failure to get her act together. Given the opportunity to lampshade rubber-suit movies, or explore why people are so jazzed to see monsters flattening cities, Vigalondo waves it all off in order to focus more deeply on nice-guy syndrome and Gloria’s weak excuses for her behavior. The relationship drama is keenly drawn, but it also often feels like a grotesque focus on the pouty behavior of a couple of spoiled, overgrown white kids, at the expense of an entire foreign city. And even in a movie with giant monsters and random magic, a few key of the plot moments — particularly one involving a giant firework — make no narrative sense.
In spite of all that, Colossal is riveting. Huge credit is due to the actors: Hathaway’s naked emotion about the destruction she’s caused in Korea is the only counterbalance for the movie’s seeming indifference otherwise, and by the end, she makes her kinda-repulsive character sympathetic and even cathartic. Sudeikis’ “what’s wrong with you, why don’t you love me” performance is also absolutely stellar, and it becomes the movie’s mesmerizing center. Joel’s appealing dopiness, Nelson’s vibrating energy, and Stevens’ usual intensity all count for a lot as well. People don’t normally go to Japanese-style monster movies for great acting, but this film relies so much on character dynamics that it’s a tremendous relief when the cast rises to the occasion.
And the movie’s aesthetics are terrific, particularly the emotionally intense score from ever-reliable Battlestar Galactica composer Bear McCreary and the glowing sunlit cinematography by Eric Kress. The homey interior of Oscar’s sports bar, Gloria’s late-night and early-morning sojourns around town, the bleached-out flashbacks exploring how the kaiju happened — they’re all beautifully shot. But beyond the film’s strong look and feel, it’s memorable because the script is so bizarre and unexpected, so confident and daring about what it’s trying to do. In subtle ways, it’s also witty and knowing. Vigalondo builds a whole subplot out of the ways people react to giant monsters in their midst, with Internet memes and viral videos and livestreaming cameras, and inevitably by choosing to identify in specific, instantly recognizable ways with something they don’t understand. No matter how unrealistic pieces of the movie get, ideas like the online reaction to Gloria’s monster feel not just real, but sly and smart and tapped in to the zeitgeist. Colossal can be off-putting, and unapologetic about it. But it’s all-in on its strange central monster conceit, on its cruel character dynamics, and on its rough, dark sense of humor. It’s the kind of film that’s guaranteed to make people angry, but it’s still unmissable.
What should it be rated?
The Korean death and destruction is pretty bloodless, but the emotional violence gets rough. Call it a PG-13.
How can I actually watch it?
Colossal opens in New York and Los Angeles on April 7th and expands nationwide on April 14th. Find theaters and showtimes at the movie’s official website.
This review originally appeared on Jan 23, 2017 in conjunction with the movie’s appearance at the Sundance Film Festival. It is being republished to coincide with the theatrical release.