Monster movies have always been about their grand, overarching metaphors. Godzilla captured the horrors of the emerging nuclear age. Dozens of films, from Frankenstein to Jurassic Park, are Promethean cautionary tales, warning against scientists who play god. King Kong has been a stand-in for all kinds of unknown enemies (he was most recently turned into an allegory for the Vietnam War). Nacho Vigalondo’s new movie Colossal takes that idea and scales it way, way down. He’s made a kaiju film where the giant, city-smashing fiend is a manifestation of one person’s fears and insecurities, rather than global anxieties.
The metaphor can be infuriating and illuminating in equal measure, tracking perfectly in some moments and feeling overly broad in others. In Colossal, a giant monster is ravaging Seoul, but it’s mysteriously connected to the fraying life of a single person thousands of miles away. Gloria (Anne Hathaway) is a screw-up who has fled her job in New York to bum around back in her hometown; she’s grappling with alcoholism and a fresh break-up, and seems to be nursing deeper, darker neuroses the audience is only beginning to understand. That the individual, often petty struggles of one American woman should be dramatized as an international catastrophe feels immediately absurd.
Of course, that’s Vigalondo’s point, and one he makes eventually. By the end of Colossal, everything essentially clicked into place for me. Until the rewarding finale, the film swerves wildly between wacky genre-busting comedy, indie mumblecore, and dark relationship drama, often feeling messy and atonal. It’s at times hard to understand why viewers should sympathize with Gloria when the world around her is gripped by a monumental crisis—and yet, this is a fairly common real-life dynamic. After all, how often does any of us focus on some trivial, personal drama as global chaos unfolds on the news?
Vigalondo, the Spanish filmmaker behind twisty genre-benders like Timecrimes and Open Windows, is trying to turn that sense of guilt into a film that works equally well as a comedy and a drama, while also making a Godzilla parody. It’s an ambitious gambit to say the least, and despite some clunky writing and rather obvious plot twists and turns, it’s largely a success. Colossal is goofy, disturbing, and wonderfully anchored by Hathaway, who always has a firm grasp on her character even when the film doesn’t.
Gloria is an online journalist of some sort (we catch a brief glimpse of her hilariously incongruous high-roller lifestyle in New York) who has lost her job. As she spirals into a depression and goes on a bender, she breaks up with her boyfriend Tim (Dan Stevens) and returns to her hometown, moving into her empty childhood abode and sleeping on a mattress on the floor. She runs into her old friend Oscar (Jason Sudeikis) and starts hanging out at his local bar with his pals (including Tim Blake Nelson and Austin Stowell), slowly trying to rebuild her life while pulling shifts as a bartender.
Quickly enough, news breaks that a gigantic reptilian monster is terrorizing Seoul; Vigalondo cuts to the city’s streets for some agreeably cheap-looking monster-movie footage of citizens fleeing destruction. Eventually, while watching scenes of the monster’s gait and weird personal tics, Gloria begins to put things together—she’s somehow controlling it, and it’s being summoned at a specific time, for seemingly specific reasons.
If that all doesn’t sound wacky enough, there are many more revelations on the way, as Oscar gets further embroiled in Gloria’s life and she begins to grasp the details of her doppelgänger. It’s here where Colossal may lose some viewers—the dynamic between Gloria and Oscar is at first mildly creepy, and then more deeply troubling, and the film struggles to convey that without ever turning into a full-blown domestic drama. Vigalondo never fully settles on just what Gloria’s monster represents. Though there are plenty of thought-provoking directions for Colossal to go in, the director focuses on a tale of a “nice guy” who becomes a menace—a move that, without spoiling too much, doesn’t quite fit with the larger monster metaphor.
Is Gloria’s city-squashing monster her alcoholism? Or her raging id, looking for an outlet to express itself? Or is it a reflection of deep, sublimated traumas that only come out at our darkest moments? In the end, it’s a bit of everything, but it also weirdly becomes a symbol of empowerment, a way to fight her battles rather than be crushed by her neuroses. It’s a big mess of ideas, but there’s such emotional catharsis to the movie’s climactic act that viewers can probably forgive its blurry storytelling and mixed metaphors. As with its predecessors, Colossal’s ideas linger and fester. The film is at once funny and haunting, a bizarre thrill-ride disguised as an indie drama, and among the most beguiling movies of the year.