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Colossal

Nacho Vigalondo is perhaps still best known for his feature directorial debut, a weird little time travel romp called Timecrimes. In the time since that little picture in 2007, he’s been busy with Extraterrestrial and Open Windows, though he appears to be much more partial to the short film format (see: his contribution to the massive The ABCs of Death anthology). Far more importantly, Vigalondo has developed quite a reputation for himself as a particularly bold visionary in the realm of sci-fi cinema.

So here’s Colossal, which features a giant monster unwittingly controlled by exec producer Anne Hathaway. Given a premise like that in the hands of a filmmaker like this, no way was I going to pass up the chance to review this one. So let’s take it from the top.

Our protagonist for tonight is Gloria (Hathaway), a perpetual fuckup living in New York. Formerly a journalist, she was laid off some time ago and spends most of her time either hungover or blackout drunk. Finally, her boyfriend (Tim, played by Dan Stevens, another actor with a beastly CGI alter ego) decides he’s had enough of her shit and forces her out of their apartment until she can get her act together. So Gloria retreats to her sleepy little childhood hometown, crashing in her parents’ old long-empty house while she takes time to do some thinking and get her life on straight.

A short time later, she happens to meet up with Oscar, an old childhood friend played by Jason Sudeikis. It seems that Oscar is running a local bar, after both of his parents died off and a planned marriage fell through. Taking sympathy for Gloria, he agrees to give her a part-time job working at the bar and enough leftover furniture to make her old empty house into something habitable.

And then news comes in that a giant monster has been rampaging through Seoul. Its movements are strangely erratic, with nervous tics that seem to match Gloria’s own. Yes, it turns out that Gloria is somehow in control of a giant monster that randomly appears and disappears half a world away. I won’t go into detail about the mechanics of how this all works, since figuring out the whys and wherefores is of course a central part of the plot.

Anyway, what’s far more important is this: Gloria is a rampant alcoholic (albeit one in recovery). Imagine a drunk behind the wheel of a car, and now imagine a drunk behind the wheel of a motherfucking kaiju.

There’s the confidence that comes with being drunk, and then there’s the power that comes with controlling a giant monster. There’s the capacity for harm to one’s self and others while intoxicated, and then there’s the capacity to destroy whole skyscrapers and thousands of innocent people. There’s making an idiot of yourself for your friends and maybe a few people on YouTube to see; and then there’s the entire world watching with bated breath, hanging on every last twinge and gesture. There’s getting in trouble with the cops, and then there’s getting in trouble with world superpowers armed with nukes.

The premise works remarkably as an allegory of destructive alcoholism writ large. So it is that Gloria finally learns to take responsibility for her actions, because the tiniest slip-up — no matter how confident she may be — is still enough to cause hundreds of people a world away to get hurt. But there’s still a lot more going on here, because we haven’t even gotten started on Oscar.

To start with, Oscar has given so much to Gloria — furniture, a job, the occasional drink, some friendly conversation, etc. — and that tends to give a certain kind of guy a sense of entitlement. Like he owns her to some extent. For another thing, Oscar is still a nobody with no family running a bar in some tiny little town, while Gloria (his old friend and classmate, remember) has power and a life of consequence in the outside world like he could never dream of. He’s jealous of that, no denying it. Also, there’s the fact that Gloria is potentially very dangerous and she could use some help to make sure she doesn’t go off the rails and hurt anyone. This last part has some justification while Gloria is still in recovery, but as she starts to develop into a stronger and more independent person, Oscar starts to look more and more like a possessive and domineering shitweasel. And last but not least, Oscar runs a bar. He’s got access to plenty of alcohol, and he doesn’t seem the least bit shy about using it.

So it is that as the plot continues to unfold, it takes on additional layers as a feminist piece on abusive relationships, toxic masculinity, gender roles, and so on. And again, all of this is made so much more interesting, exciting, and funny because it’s being portrayed through kaiju imagery with a whole city on the line.

As effective as the kaiju device is, it’s really the actors who make all the various themes work. Anne Hathaway is of course the main attraction, and she brings a kind of inner fire that makes the feminist statement so much more potent and heartfelt. It also helps that while “desperate addict” is a well-established and powerful tool in her kit, we haven’t seen her bring it out very often or very recently (not since Rachel Getting Married, at least).

That said, the film’s true secret weapon is Jason Sudeikis. He has this kind of effortless everyman charm, such that it’s easy to buy him a sweet and perfectly harmless guy. And that charm is still there, even after the character slowly becomes our antagonist. Thus the heel-turn is shocking in the moment, but completely obvious in retrospect; like the inner pain was always there and we simply didn’t see it until it was too late. More than that, it’s so tempting to cheer for the guy, with hope that he might redeem himself and The Point of No Return never comes. Sudeikis makes it easy to sympathize with the character and understand his motivations, even as his actions are utterly reprehensible and we root for his comeuppance. What more could anyone ask of any villain?

While the interplay between the two characters is great, it’s the fight choreography that truly deserves mention. Specifically because it doesn’t even look like the fights were choreographed. The fights are clumsy and awkward, spontaneous and without polish, clearly made to look like it was between two people who don’t know the first thing about martial arts. Thus the fights are not only more comical, but also more authentic and painful to watch.

The visuals are solid, especially in the various clever ways the filmmakers used to show the mechanics of the kaiju. The CGI was spotty in a few brief places, but otherwise held up quite well and I liked the character design. Kudos are also due to Bear McCreary, who turned in a beautifully effective score.

So are there any nitpicks? Well, the secondary cast wasn’t nearly as strong. Tim is positioned as someone who’s maybe possibly a different kind of possessive asshole boyfriend, but that angle went sadly undeveloped. We’ve also got Joel and Garth (respectively played by Austin Stowell and Tim Blake Nelson) who work well as comic relief but are otherwise superfluous. Joel is potentially interesting as the sweet and handsome guy who’s too chickenshit to say or do anything about the abusive relationship unfolding in front of him, but that sadly requires him to be ineffectual by design. As for Garth, he is so aggressively random that there’s no way to get a read on him or his connections with the other characters.

Also, while we do eventually learn what happened so that Gloria is able to control the kaiju, I found the explanation to be sadly underwhelming. There are still a lot of unanswered questions, and the answers we get are inconsequential. The mechanics themselves are interesting, particularly in how they’re used for an awesome moment at the climax, but none of it is made more interesting by what we learn in the flashbacks. Ultimately, this is such a bizarre little story that already requires such a huge suspension of disbelief, the premise doesn’t really need any justification.

Colossal is truly a wonder. It’s funny and painful, uplifting and devastating, heartfelt and creative. Blending themes of feminism and substance abuse with kaiju cinema in a deeply inspired way, this movie works on multiple levels as only the best genre-defying movies can hope to. Come for Anne Hathaway, stay for Jason Sudeikis.

It’s a damn shame this movie isn’t getting a wider release right now (especially given the slim pickings we’ve gotten in recent weeks), because it deserves so much better. If you get the chance to see it, jump on it!

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