Nacho Vigalondo’s Colossal opens, like so many monster movies, with a young child on a search for a lost toy. They catch sight of a kaiju-style monster on the skyline, but the beast isn’t stomping its way through a city or destroying neighbourhoods. Instead it stands still, waiting. The narrative quickly veers away via a ‘25 years later’ card and to the story of an unemployed woman struggling with alcohol issues, but that opening image sticks in the audience’s mind; the expectation of what’s to come played against stillness and what’s occurring. It’s a microcosm of a film that pits audience and genre expectation against escalating red flags and dangerous human behaviour, one that uses its quirky kaiju hook to explore darker emotional terrain than its audience might usually be exposed to.
Don’t let the posters fool you — this is a film about abuse.
Colossal starts out like most mid-level dramedies: Gloria (Anne Hathaway), disaffected by unemployment and alcohol dependency, is sent packing by her boyfriend Tim (Dan Stevens). She moves back to her small hometown and an empty house her parents no longer live in, and is quickly reunited with childhood friend and local bar owner Oscar (Jason Sudekis). Oscar offers her a job and free furniture, ingratiating himself to Gloria while she struggles to find her place in the town. She’s someone who always saw herself as bigger than where she came from, so coming back is uncomfortable and humbling, and she deals with that discomfort by drinking.
When a giant monster starts menacing Seoul, it feels disconnected from the narrative, until Gloria realises that she is the monster: when she walks through a playground at a certain time, the monster traipses through Seoul. It’s not merely a connection; if Gloria steers clear of the park, the monster doesn’t appear. After sharing her discovery with her new friends, Oscar realises he can also manifest himself as a giant robot. Drunk mistakes lead to destruction, and Gloria makes a sincere effort to apologise and rid the world of her monster avatar — but Oscar has different ideas for his new power, using the threat of violence against a distant city to control Gloria.
What’s interesting is that his behaviour, at this point in the film, is nothing new — Oscar has already been degrading and coercive towards Gloria, but with his newfound power to destroy cities his abuse quickly escalates, in a series of uncomfortable scenes that walk the line between the light tone previously established by the film and increasingly violent behaviour. It’s important to note that the film is not metaphorical: it uses an extrapolation of abuser’s power to explore the emotional manipulation and coercion tactics used by abusers. Oscar’s behaviour moves seamlessly from ‘nice guy’ to abusive as soon as he has enough power over Gloria to control her, but his attempts to distance himself from his own behaviour, to excuse his actions as drunk mistakes or responses to provocation from Gloria, are chilling to watch. Oscar is a man deeply insecure with his own mediocrity, and resentful of Gloria’s relative success in a way that is instantly familiar to anyone who grew up in a small town 1. This early establishment of Oscar’s less admirable traits is likely to split audiences — some will recognise the early signs of an abuser, and others won’t — but what’s important is that the film doesn’t excuse Oscar. He’s the villain, through and through, and Jason Sudekis does an excellent job of selling Oscar as not a typical monster, but a monster nonetheless.
Importantly, the film doesn’t present Tim as a solution to Oscar’s abuse – his offers to help Gloria instead amplify her own helplessness to Oscar’s threats, and in turn anger Oscar further and lead him to more controlling behaviours like breaking into her house. Similarly significant is the portrayal of Oscar’s friends Joel (Austin Stowell) and Garth (Tim Blake Nelson) as witnesses to his abusive behaviours who, despite clearly being uncomfortable, make no effort to stop him. Joel is a particularly messy character, whose one night stand with Gloria tips Oscar into using his powers to control Gloria, but who later helps furnish Gloria’s house on Oscar’s behalf and offers apologies for Oscar’s behaviour after he destroys an entire neighbourhood in Seoul. This spineless facilitation of abuse is a rarity, particularly in what is ostensibly a popcorn film; ultimately, no man is going to save Gloria, and she is the only one able to stop Oscar — by literally fighting the monster who has been controlling her.
The filmmaking is at its best when finding creative ways to deliver on the kaiju premise with a $15 million budget, by focusing on the human level of destruction. Sound design, framing and scale are real standouts — rather than cutting to cheering crowds watching a giant monster and robot, we hear locals watching the action on TV while watching Gloria and Oscar in the park, and the destruction of an entire neighbourhood is sold through close ups of Oscar’s feet stamping through bark chips. The human level of the narrative is the focus, and it’s far more effective to watch Gloria and Oscar fighting in the park than to see a giant monster and robot duking it out on the other side of the world. Sudekis’ performance is the highlight, but Hathaway is solid playing a (rare?) female character who is messy and aware of her flaws — if unwilling to change them. Stowell also does a remarkable job balancing discomfort and action as Joel, someone who is unwilling to rock the boat in a small town, finding excuses even when he knows Oscar’s actions are inexcusable.
The film’s bait and switch — promising kaiju destruction and quirky romance and delivering an intimate human abuse narrative — extends beyond its runtime, both from a production and marketing perspective. Audience expectations are set not only in the film, but through its place in the wider modern pop culture film canon:the use of kaiju, which have come back into box office favour in recent years with Pacific Rim, Godzilla (14) and Kong: Skull Island, plays directly in the face of Hollywood’s obsession with large scale destruction. Colossal is a more intimate look at monsters, just not the monsters we are safe from once the credits roll. By playing in the big budget sandbox and using its toys to tell a compelling and important story, Colossal is a smart, rare film that engages with an important issue in an accessible and intelligent manner.
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