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Movie Review: June 2017

Colossal: A Most Satisfying Tale of Redemption and Giant Monsters

Colossal
Written and directed by Nacho Vigalondo
Toy Fight Productions, April 2017

Colossal, written and directed by Spanish filmmaker Nacho Vigolando, mashes up two film genres that shouldn’t go together, but it turns out they totally do. First, it displays full mastery of the conventions of the giant monster movie, including breathless infodumpy newscasts and small children falling in the street as the beast approaches. Also on display: full mastery of the conventions of the indie comedy in which directionless alcoholics fuck up everything.

The first scene takes place in a park in Seoul. Late one night, a young girl is looking for her lost doll. She glances up and sees the silhouette of a massive creature, its head jutting above the skyline of the city. She screams.

In the second scene (twenty-five years later, we’re told), Gloria (Anne Hathaway, who has never quite fit into sweetheart roles precisely because of her talent for pulling off quirky characters like this) stumbles into her boyfriend’s apartment after an all-night bender, calling out excuses for herself even before she’s finished pulling her key from the lock. Her boyfriend (Dan Stevens, who is having a very good year and it’s only April) promptly kicks her out. He already has her bags packed. Seems Gloria does this kind of thing a lot. She flees to the small town where she grew up to hide away in the now-empty family home. The first person she meets is Oscar, a guy she knew back in school. He offers her a job at the bar he owns. It’s unclear whether there was ever anything romantic between them. Conventions of the romance genre suggest there might have been. But the story quickly goes off any conventional rail.

After a bender in the bar, Gloria hauls her air mattress through a nearby playground, gets home, passes out, and awakes to the horrifying news that a giant monster has stomped through Seoul, causing mass destruction and inspiring global panic. The general horror, the way that the bar is packed with people watching the footage over and over again on the big screen, feels genuine.

Then it happens again, right after Gloria has once again stomped through the playground on her drunken way home. Moreover, the creature displays one of Gloria’s distinctive nervous ticks: idly scratching the top of its head. She tries an experiment: She goes to the playground the next morning, at exactly the same time (we know it’s the same time, it’s right when kids are walking to school), stands in the playground, and executes a series of gestures that can’t possibly be coincidence. And yes, it’s true, Gloria is somehow controlling the actions of this terrible monster.

But there’s more. After yet another all-night bender, she hauls Oscar and friends to the playground to prove what’s happening. She falls over (which is horrifying to her—hundreds die because of her drunken clumsiness, and she stops drinking entirely), Oscar runs over to help—and a giant robot appears next to the giant monster.

So now Gloria and Oscar have something in common, yeah?

The solution should be easy. In order to stop the destruction, they simply need to never, ever step into the playground at 8:05 ever again. Right? Well. It turns out Oscar is a raging asshole, and the film immediately stops being a romcom. It’s kind of brilliant.

My favorite thing this movie does is dismantle the trope of the woman who goes away to the City to make it big, fails, and comes crawling back to her small town to lick her wounds, where she promptly runs into the Guy She Knew Before. Most of the time, this is the setup for a romance in which the woman overcomes her hubris to realize the small town and the small-town guy she left behind aren’t so bad. They fall madly in love, everyone grows and learns, ta-da and the end.

For the first half, Colossal makes us think this is what we’re getting. A silly, happy story in which everyone will learn and grow and check into rehab and so on. Then it deftly, in the space of a scene, turns into a domestic horror movie. Oscar resents Gloria for ever leaving town in the first place. When she tries to leave again, or even strike up relationships with other people, he threatens her. And the threat is dire: Every time she doesn’t do exactly what he tells her to, he will go to the playground and visit his robot doppelgänger on the city, killing thousands, and it will be her fault.

This is the classic line of the textbook abuser: He only hurts her because she won’t listen to him. This section of the film probably should come with a trigger warning, the depiction of this abuse cycle is so vivid and raw. She physically tries to stop Oscar from entering the playground, and he beats her. It’s clear that Oscar isn’t some obsessive stalker who thinks he loves Gloria. No, he enjoys controlling her because it’s the only power he has and he’s going to use it. Gloria briefly succumbs to helpless despair, and at this point I was afraid the story wasn’t going to be able to figure out how to end without killing her off. Happily, though, she figures it out. For all her many faults she’s a problem solver, doing everything from mapping the city of Seoul over the playground so she knows exactly where she’s stomping and can avoid people, to getting a Korean translation of an apology that she can write in the dirt. She’s an active protagonist who triumphs, and the film sticks the landing beautifully. I don’t want to give away exactly what happens because it’s wonderful and juicy and satisfying and Oscar gets exactly what’s coming to him. (Comic actor Jason Sudeikis plays Oscar, and he pivots incredibly well from the gosh-gee schlubby potential love interest to holy-shit scary abuser.)

The metaphor of untreated, out-of-control alcoholics becoming monsters that unwittingly destroy everything around them is obvious. Fortunately, there’s a whole lot more going on here. One way I judge movies that use genre conventions as metaphors is whether or not they make an attempt to explain the genre elements on their own terms and not handwave them away. (An example of a genre-adjacent film that never made it past metaphor: Another Earth (2011) gives us the intriguing image of a second, alternate Earth appearing in the sky of our own Earth. Characters explore the idea of how their lives might have gone differently on this other Earth, whether they might be happier there. In the end, the film is emotionally manipulative and completely ignores all real-world physical implications of having an Earth-sized planet so close. At the moment, I can’t even remember how it ended.) Colossal solves its conflict and brings about its very satisfying ending by using its genre elements, not in spite of them. Gloria figures out the practical set of steps she needs to accomplish to stop Oscar, and she does it. She also learns what brought about this astonishingly unbelievable set of circumstances in the first place: Twenty-five years before, on the future location of the playground, at exactly 8:05, Oscar the bully stomped to pieces Gloria’s school-project diorama of Seoul at the moment a freak bolt of lightning struck them both. It’s a little bit ridiculous, but it’s also entirely within the spirit of the story, or any story that conjures kaiju from nuclear blasts or rifts in the ocean floor. My point is the situation isn’t handwaved into existence, or out of existence. The whole story can be regarded as metaphor, but it also handles these elements on their own terms, and I appreciate that.

One of my fears going into this was another obvious metaphorical set up: The clueless white woman whose actions destroy lives on the other side of the world without her even realizing it. Would the film be aware of this possible interpretation? Would it even be concerned with the fate of Seoul, or would the city be little more than a McGuffin sacrificed to Gloria’s tale of redemption? In fact, the movie begins and ends on the ground in Seoul, getting up close to the damage and the faces of the victims. The minute she understands what’s happening, Gloria is devastated at the harm she’s caused, and her primary goal moving forward is to prevent any more damage. The people around her, not so much. When the appearances of the monster and the robot become predictable, people outside of Seoul tune in to watch mecha-kaiju battles like it’s any other monster movie. So the film is aware of this particular set of metaphors and plays on them as much as all its other metaphors.

The middle of the film drags, maybe indulging too much in the indie-arthouse side of its heritage with long scenes of characters conducting long conversations that don’t really move the story forward. There’s a super-awkward seduction storyline with Gloria and a side character that mostly serves to give Oscar a reason to flip his asshole switch, and remind us that yes, Gloria is no saint herself. But as I said, the film’s denouement is so satisfying that it makes up for my quibbles. A movie like Colossal is a perfect counterpoint to the summer SFX superheroes-and-explosions blockbuster extravaganza we’re gearing up for. Sometimes you just want a story about a woman who is also a monster trying to do the right thing.

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Carrie Vaughn

Carrie Vaughn

Carrie Vaughn is the bestselling author of the Kitty Norville series, about a werewolf who hosts a talk radio advice show. Her newest novel is a planetary adventure, Martians Abroad. Bannerless, a post-apocalyptic murder mystery, will be released by John Joseph Adams Books in July 2017. Her short fiction has appeared in many magazines and anthologies, from Lightspeed to Tor.com and George R.R. Martin’s Wild Cards series. She lives in Colorado with a fluffy attack dog. Learn more at carrievaughn.com.