COLOSSAL Review: A Monster Movie About Booze And Empathy

Anne Hathaway is an alcoholic Kaiju.

Colossal is a film that could conceivably function as its own sequel, packing in two distinct, interrelated and fully-formed arcs for its protagonist within a brisk one hundred minutes. The first is a tale of addiction and its irresponsible pitfalls, setting up and blending seamlessly into the second, one of reclaiming power at the hands of abuse and emotional toxicity, both part of a cathartic whole wrapped in one hell of an original monster movie.

Anne Hathaway’s character is Gloria and she’s an alcoholic, a small-town escapee living the Midtown Manhattanite life to its decadent fullest. Like most on-the-go city folk, her apartment is a pit stop between Hustle Street and Bustle Avenue, but her metropolitan façade is actually rotten to the core. She’s been out of work for a year, living with (and likely off) her boyfriend Tim (Dan Stevens), who has trouble keeping track of her whereabouts the way she has trouble keeping track of her excuses. We’re dropped smack-dab in the middle of this relationship with no context as to how many times this fight has happened before, because for Gloria it may as well be the first. The first that truly registers, anyway, though not until she realizes Tim has packed her belongings.

Moving back home is hard enough, but putting on a brave face about the actual reasons tends to be its own challenge. This challenge is made ever so slightly easier thanks to a kind face and kindly demeanor, in the form of Jason Sudeikis as Oscar, Gloria’s childhood friend. He’s a simple reminder of the people, places and events she’d either missed or forgotten, sometimes literally reminding her of conversations from the night before, and he offers to help her out by employing her at his father’s bar and restaurant, where they spent a few formative years of their youth. Despite continuing her cycle of get wasted, pass out, wake up in pain, repeat, at least now Gloria doesn’t have anyone breathing down her neck – any human being, that is.

Out of the blue, like some cataclysmic, world-changing series of events, a bipedal, two-horned sea monster begins appearing over Seoul. Always at the same time, 8:05am for Gloria, always for a limited period, and always when she happens to have stumbled drunkenly into a nearby playground. These early hours of the morning are a blur, but she spots something bizarre while catching up on the news in the late afternoon. The monster has her signature tick, a head-itch stemming from a childhood accident, and it happens to mimic all her movements on the scale of a skyscraper. For some inexplicable reason, Anne Hathaway is a Kaiju terrorizing Korea, and it’s one of the best things you’ll see this year.

Kaiju films aren’t usually shy about their metaphors but Colossal goes a step further, using its monster as a very direct, very literal projection of Gloria and the consequences of her alcoholism. It’s a wandering, careless beast unaware of the harmful effects its actions can have on other people, and it’s only in realizing and accepting this that Gloria can begin cleaning up her act. That’s the basic premise hinted at in the trailers, and if it’s all you know going in, it’s already too much! There’s a specific joy to discovering Colossal (as well as Hathaway’s and Sudeikis’ performances), and if you’d rather return to this point in the review after having seen the film, I wouldn’t fault you for that decision.

Sudeikis’ Oscar is part of the reason Gloria gets back on her feet, but his help is somewhat conditional. He’s a charming, complex character with his own invisible baggage, spending time with friends either much older or much younger than himself. The trio of Sudeikis, Tim Blake Nelson and Austin Stowell are fun to spend time with, between Nelson’s pseudo-philosophical rambling and Stowell’s doe-eyed outlook at everything including romance, but the darker side to Oscar necessitates having friends like these, because they’re people he can subtly control. He isn’t some scheming villain, mind you. Nothing he does to these two friends is particularly terrible, and his assistance to Gloria initially feels genuine, if a bit overzealous, but he does know how to tower over his friends when he needs to feel better about himself. Sometimes that takes the form of casual ribbing. Other times it’s “casual” emotional blackmail based on bits of information he hangs over their heads.

He’s that guy.

The film’s latter half involves a Gloria very much in control of her habit. She’s no longer blacking out, and as a result, no longer monstrously stomping on buildings, but when faced with either returning to her overbearing, image-obsessed ex or working for a friend with ulterior motives, she’s backed into a bit of a corner. Now that Oscar is in on her Kaiju secret, it’s something he can use against her if things don’t go his way. Gloria never intends to hurt people, but to Oscar, the citizens of Korea are but blips on a live-stream. Distant entities on the other side of a computer, who matter to him about as much as the agency of someone who won’t return his affections. For Oscar, a monstrous projection on the other side of the globe is an opportunity to feel big.

Screens may not be a prominent feature in Gloria’s hometown – their purpose here is largely expositional – but make no mistake. Colossal is sci-fi about the internet era. It’s about the harm we cause, both intended and accidental, when we view human beings only through the filters of our screens, letting our empathy get lost along the way as we project massive, intimidating images of ourselves to mask our insecurities. It’s a loaded film with much to say about modern interaction, and it’s able to ground its outlook firmly in character, focusing on the redemption possible when we recognize our problems, and the resultant toxicity when we refuse to.

If it has one noticeable drawback, it’s that some of the connective tissue between its otherwise poignant moments feels neither atmospheric nor propulsive, like a handful of initial bar scenes (the rest of the film has a very distinct sense of time and place despite its limited locations), not to mention a couple of seemingly illogical turns by Oscar between learning new information and acting on it. On the other hand, there are times when this irrational processing makes Oscar seem all the more unpredictable. It’s a tremendously layered performance by Sudeikis, subverting his own type by playing a petty prick who fancies himself both a genuinely good guy and a wounded victim, and there are times you wish the camera wouldn’t cut away from him.

Gloria’s story unfolds as she responds to her own problems and to Oscar in equal measure, with a plot thus driven equally by protagonist and antagonist. Opposing forces with conflicting priorities that make this larger-than-life parable feel intimate, especially given how much time we get to spend with Gloria behind closed doors. Hathaway is equal parts hilarious and heartfelt, with every quip and affectation coming off as both comedic timing as well as the slow rattling of a guard-rail. These could be people in anyone’s hometown, and Gloria is every one of us as we try and shelve our problems in favour of a good time, or put up defensive walls that come off as disinterest. What’s scary, though, is that the self-loathing Oscar could be any one of us too, acting out because we’ve been let down by others and by the world at large.

Above all else, where Colossal truly finds itself is in the subtleties of its filmmaking. Balancing these seemingly disparate premises – a straight-faced story about addiction and entitlement and a goofy-looking monster throwback – takes an expert hand, and Nacho Vigalondo’s juggling act is a rousing success. The suburban sprawl of Gloria’s hometown and the densely populated Korean capital are connected by sound; while there’s never any diegetic auditory crosspollination (Gloria’s Kaiju connection can only be demonstrated through movement), the emotional reality of each monster-centric realization is punctuated by cheers or screams or crashing debris on other side of the globe.

Mere footsteps in the sand become booming thuds; impact craters carrying the weight of loss and failure. The camera becomes an equal transcriber of the full nature of these experiences, unseen by the characters, at least at first, but undoubtedly felt by the audience. It shifts radically within the scene itself, not only to re-orient physical scale (making human beings look big on a children’s playground isn’t exactly difficult), but to physically capture emotional transition. The trick of lower or higher angles to empower or depower is as old as cinema, but its sheer simplicity is interwoven with the film’s head-scratcher of a premise. Monstrous manifestations of emotional hurdles always make for interesting cinema, but mirroring those monsters with characters’ interpersonal decisions makes these people seem horrifying or heroic in the process.

The film is on-the-nose with reckless abandon, as the characters really need to “get it” if the story is to have its triumphant third-act catharsis. Its “metaphors” are hardly metaphors at the end of the day, but if there is one important metaphor to unpack, it’s the use of picture and sound to keep us connected to Seoul as we spend time in a secluded township, drawing our attention to lived experience through the same mechanics that Oscar and his online ilk use to filter it out: the screen. What more could you want from a movie than a renewed desire to empathize?

Full disclosure, Alamo Drafthouse owns Birth.Movies.Death. and also has an ownership share in NEON, the distributor releasing COLOSSAL. That said, I saw COLOSSAL before it was acquired and I love it to pieces.