I’m “biast” (con): nothing
(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)
I often worry that being a critic has made me jaded, that seeing more movies than is probably healthy for any one person to see has soured my love of movies. But then along comes a film like Colossal to remind me that that is not the case. A film like Colossal tells me that the problem is not me, and the problem is not seeing too many movies. The problem is that too many movies are too similar to too many other movies, and that too many filmmakers are too comfortable with using easy clichés and lazy narrative techniques to tell stories we’ve already seen a million times before. (I don’t understand this! Isn’t this as boring for those filmmakers as it is for us? But that’s a rant for another day.) A film like Colossal shocks and surprises because it upends those clichés and finds new narrative techniques with such confident ease that you wonder why all those other filmmakers can’t be bothered to try to be just a teeny bit different.
Colossal would be wonderfully strange and weird and funny and dark and bitter if it did only the one amazing thing it does with the trope of “monster attacks a city for no discernible reason” that is the basis of a thousand creature features. Writer-director Nacho Vigalondo posits that the gigantic lizard-thing that appears in Seoul and stomps around with no regard for the destruction it is wreaking is somehow connected to a human person half a world away: that, bizarrely, if this person walks through a specific place in a small town in could-be-anywhere America, the monster manifests in Seoul and enacts the same movements — the wave of a hand here, the stomp of a foot there — on a much larger scale. How could two such beings be connected? Why? What does it mean? When we know that this person is quite a damaged person, that this person is the sort of person who acts selfishly, with little concern for how those selfish actions impact other people… well, then, Colossal becomes in part a particularly, deliciously geek-flavored metaphor for how damaged people spread their damage heedlessly to those around them. And that’s a new monster-movie metaphor! This alone already makes Colossal unlike any movie we’ve ever seen before. (I said “a film like Colossal” a lot above. Except there has not been a film like this.)
The person who finds that unexpected connection to a kaiju is Gloria (Anne Hathaway: Alice Through the Looking Glass, The Intern). A woman. Which brings in additional levels of freshness and why-haven’t-we-seen-this-before-ness. Gloria is a hot mess… like women actually are plenty often in real life yet only vanishingly rarely allowed to be onscreen. (Like, you can count the examples on one hand. The most recent female character even faintly similar to Gloria that springs to mind is Amy Schumer in 2015’s Trainwreck. Two years ago. Yet guys like Gloria are onscreen every week.) She’s a drunk, for one. She lies reflexively and is unthinkingly cruel to her boyfriend, Tim (Dan Stevens: Beauty and the Beast, The Guest), even in the face of what appears to be saintly patience on his part (as the female partners of onscreen male hot messes usually are!). She’s all-around pretty useless, in fact. And when she runs away from New York City and from Tim — well, okay, Tim finally had had enough of her bullshit and threw her out of their apartment — to her hometown, she tries to be vaguely nice to her old school friend Oscar (Jason Sudeikis: The Angry Birds Movie, Tumbledown), because he is at least kind enough to give her a job in his bar. She’s not actually evil, but her habit of using people is a tough one to break.
Colossal is an astonishing portrait of Gloria: Hathaway beautifully captures the contradictions of a woman who is outwardly bursting with apparent confidence in herself and secretly rattled by an insecurity that she doesn’t even fully understand. Vigalondo finds achingly perfect little character touches that hint at her inner turmoil, like how she is always waking up in physical pain, having gotten no real rest, because she never actually goes to sleep but instead just drunkenly falls into an unconscious stupor, usually in a weird position on an uncomfortable surface. The connection with the Seoul monster — which mostly plays out at a distance, on TV news broadcasts and YouTube videos; this isn’t really a monster-disaster movie — gains a deeper level of potency and poignancy because a woman’s pain is, in reality, so often turned inward: men who are hurting usually hurt other people, sometimes violently, while women who are hurting usually hurt themselves. But even a woman’s inwardly directed anger can hurt others too, and here, Gloria is horrified when she realizes that she is somehow coupled to the monster, that her anger and pain have been made monstrous and are hurting other people, completely innocent people who’ve done nothing to her. There’s a level of smacking down of the female presumed internalization of pain happening in Colossal: a woman who believes she is keeping her pain all to herself is actually doing nothing of the sort.
This is a remarkably sharp-eyed perspective on how women deal with their own suffering, and Colossal on the whole is a zinger of a reminder that male filmmakers are perfectly capable of telling stories about women that plausibly capture women’s realities, particularly in how those differ from men’s, and could even have some insight that a female filmmaker might miss. (I am especially surprised by this, because the last film of Vigalondo’s that I’ve seen, Open Windows, is a shitbag of breezy toxic masculinity and happy misogyny.)
Perhaps the most amazing thing about Colossal is that everything that I have just discussed is only the beginning of what the film has to say about why women hurt and how they express it, how men contribute to undermining women’s confidence in themselves, and how men take advantage of the very insecurity they inspire in women. (Not all men! But some men. And you never know which ones it’s going to be.) The abundance of ingenuity in Colossal, and the shrewdness of its understanding of human nature, makes it difficult to talk about too much without ruining its odd yet deeply satisfying pleasures. (This movie is going to need one of my deep-dive “spoiler alert” posts soon, to discuss not only its ending but its middle.)
Everything that is wrong with movies right now is reversed in Colossal: it’s a true original that defies genre, it’s clever in a way that is not snarky or self-aware, it’s authentic about human experience in a way that has not been explored onscreen before… but it never forgets, even while it’s doing all these terrific things, to be a whole lotta sumptuous fun. Colossal makes it look easy, to boot. It has recharged my love of movies… but it has also dropped a gauntlet. Movies that want to use science-fictional or fantastical metaphors to look at the world and its people? Colossal is what you will be measured against.