Nacho Vigalondo began his career making cult Spanish sci-fi films, but has begun to reach into the American market, following segments in horror anthologies and Open Windows (2014) with Elijah Wood. For American audiences, Colossal marks the launch of a new distributor, Neon, bringing festival hits and cult films like The Bad Batch to wider audiences.
The strength of Colossal is it accepts its budget limitations, balancing indie movie aesthetics with the effects-heavy kaijū giant monster genre. Gloria (Anne Hathaway) is a freelance writer creating content for a website, living in New York City with her boyfriend Tim (Dan Stevens), left unemployed for the past year within a fragile industry. Hathaway is a familiar voice, beginning her career as teenage characters in The Princess Diaries (2001) and Brokeback Mountain (2005), animated characters in Rio (2011) and resting on franchises as Catwoman in The Dark Knight Rises (2012). Gloria might seem an indie movie cliché, yet Hathaway delivers a strong performance, remaining relatable and funny.
Even in its soundtrack, the film accepts the indie movie, as Crybaby’s When the Lights Go Out plays in the bar. The film is self-aware: Gloria jokes that they’re in a Wes Anderson movie. But the film isn’t self-aware enough to turn this into a visual gag in the style of Anderson’s cinematography, leaving the joke hanging in the air. The film relies upon quirky contrivances, as Oscar (Jason Sudeikis) threatens Tim to leave his bar with illegal fireworks smuggled from Mexico, kept in storage for ten years, telling him this is “the most irresponsible thing I could do”, merely to make a point. Oscar loses customers and sets half of his bar on fire, probably unable to recoup half of the costs, merely to tell Tim to fuck off.
Moving back to her childhood home in middle America, Tim forcing her out of their flat to sober her up from her alcohol addiction and find new, Gloria finds a changing landscape; some things stayed the same, some changed. Working in a newly renovated pub, Gloria finds new family and a life as a waitress, befriending Oscar, Joel (Austin Stowell) and Garth (Tim Blake Nelson). Filmed in Vancouver, British Columbia, the setting epitomises the smaller scale lifestyle of films like Nebraska (2013), Manchester by the Sea and Paterson, beyond the busy city.
Colossal might have some romantic comedy conventions, yet largely tries to avoid a love triangle. Colossal has its share of conflict and jealousy, yet tied to childhood arguments than romantic drama. Oscar is nice to Gloria, giving her half his furniture so she doesn’t just have a half-inflated airbed to sleep on. Words are thrown; chairs are broken; TVs destroyed. Gloria forms a bond with Joel away from Tim, accepting his questionable advances and sleeping with him, waking up with her arm trapped underneath his comatose body the following morning.
Dan Stevens was a joy in The Guest (2014), portraying a similar character who doesn’t reveal his entire motives, caught in a small-town where he doesn’t entirely belong. Tim might be hot with a tightly-groomed beard, the epitome of #boyfriendgoals, but he’s a total dick. He lives in his own New York City bubble, insistent his way of life is better than Gloria’s: sober, aesthetic interior décor, working with clients for a big company, staying at Holiday Inns as he travels across the country. Tim can’t accept Gloria working as a waitress, because she’s too good for it; he can’t accept small-town people serving their local community with coffee and booze.
Colossal is a film about addiction, as Gloria becomes pressured to keep up a lifestyle of alcohol. In New York City, she attends an endless string of parties. At home, we see her alcoholic desire, staring at drinks in the fridge, waking hungover in the middle of the day, only for her next shift to begin. Everyone in their 20s knows her pain. In the bar, she’s pressured by Oscar to have another beer, pouring away to the floor in defiance. In the closing scene, we’re still left with open-ended doubts. Garth has his own secret struggles with addiction, snorting cocaine in the bathroom.
Using the kaijū genre, the monster and robot attacking Seoul become videogame avatars of Oscar and Gloria, manifesting their own conflicts. Colossal feels like the childhood dream of anyone who grew up in the 80s and 90s; Oscar and Gloria literally play with action figures in a sandbox every morning at 8:05am. The premise almost feels out of The Twilight Zone (1959-64), using science fiction as a moral lesson, feeling like a PSA. But there are also shades of The Giant and A Monster Calls, metaphorically representing human issues and anxieties. Beyond the simulated deaths of videogames, Oscar and Gloria struggle with the real consequences of their actions. Their small conflict is transposed against the huge-scale fantasy of giant monsters running through Seoul, killing hundreds of civilians in the process. She feels grief over what she could have done. We’re given a sense of responsibility, between threats and blackmail, as Oscar threatens to kill hundreds unless she makes a change. Tim kicks Gloria out at the worst point, refusing to deal with her problems in favour of himself.
Like with Pacific Rim (2013), we cross the boundaries between American and Asian cinema. Rather than first-hand perspectives, we learn of destruction from cheering crowds in the bar. The tears of South Koreans are never ours. Gloria hears of her destruction through screens, from newspapers to websites to images on TVs to phonecalls, learning hours after the fact through her own media bubble. Colossal engineers a global response, reports informing us of a plummeting stock market, nuclear weapons and a tense relationship with North Korea. As Gloria stands her ground as a peaceful monster, apologising to South Korea through a message transcribed by the owner of a Chinese restaurant, she punches Oscar in the face, remixed as a THUG LIFE meme on YouTube as a viral video.
Oscar and Gloria carry awareness of their spectators, onlookers cheering from the houses beside the playground, unaware the fight is happening right in front of their house, private conflict becoming public. In the final act, Gloria rejects Tim’s offer to go back with him, flying to Seoul to end her conflict with Oscar for good. To resolve the space between, Gloria needs greater distance. As she demolishes Oscar, destroying her childhood playground and the threat of nuclear war in the process, she becomes a spectacle cheered on by cellphone-brandishing crowds, a superhero defending the city. In dramatic irony, her achievements become unacknowledged, standing just away from the cameras.
Colossal might be derivative, re-appropriating tropes from indie movies, romantic movies and kaijū films, yet remains a fun ride from its comedy to performances.