Larger Than Life?
If you are one of the lucky ones and haven’t the faintest inkling of what Colossal is about, please stop reading after this sentence and watch the movie, which will be more enjoyable if you go in cold. If you are reading this post aware of the central conceit of the film, I would still advise you to not read this review, because the story moves in powerfully unpredictable ways that extend beyond what can be inferred from the premise, some of which I spoil in the paragraphs below. In other words, this review is designed for people who a) have seen the film, b) don’t particularly care about spoilers, or c) know how the movie progresses but don’t know how it ends. If you fall into any of these last three categories—happy reading!
It’s not every day that you see a kaiju movie treated with the grimness of a Denis Villeneuve picture (the few facetious moments in Colossal peak through like pinpricks of light within a suffocating smog), but this juxtaposition of cheese and seriousness fits the film’s subject matter. Just as a goofy-looking Godzilla offshoot and, later in the film, an equally goofy-looking giant robot are the kinds of figures that, though often deployed in the service of campy, rock ’em sock’ em spectacle in film, would cause devastating collateral damage in real life, so alcoholism, the disorder afflicting the two human characters who are psychosomatically linked to the towering behemoths, is a condition that is frequently exploited for laughs on the silver screen but in reality destroys lives. In having these cartoonish figures wreak genuinely horrifying havoc, Colossal also announces its intention to subvert the tendency to cast irresponsible drinking in a cavalier, even celebratory light. A beer or two can be harmless fun, but too many can destroy lives, and not just your own.
The film’s meaning-freighted narrative centers on party girl Gloria (Anne Hathaway), who, near the start of the movie, is seen returning to her sleepy hometown after her boyfriend (Dan Stevens) kicks her out for chronic over-drinking. When she arrives, she runs into Oscar (Jason Sudeikis), a childhood acquaintance who seems at first to be extremely accommodating, delivering furniture to her empty house and offering her a job as a waitress at his bar. Her new place of occupation makes Gloria uneasy, given the omnipresence of alcoholic beverages, but she accepts the gig anyway. The place looks homey enough, and when she does end up downing beers after hours with Oscar and a couple of the local guys, the atmosphere feels genial rather than foreboding.
Things quickly go awry, however, when Gloria discovers that her subsequent spells of inebriation lead her to frequent a sandbox at a nearby playground and step around within it, movements that conjure up a monster in Seoul whose actions mirror her own. Pretty soon, Oscar realizes that the same thing happens to him, though instead of a kaiju, he calls forth a giant robot. What began as casual drinking has turned into anything but, as both characters become aware that each stomp through the sand may leave a trail of bodies in another country (most of Colossal is set Stateside). Based on the film’s premise, the connection between alcoholism and destruction is clear, but it’s also telling that director Nacho Vigolondo chooses to have the site of action be a sandbox and the consequences take place on the other side of the world. Alcohol may momentarily turn life into a game, a space of play and escape, but the repercussions often reach farther than one knows.
As the overarching metaphor for alcohol-induced irresponsibility and ensuing devastation play out, the relationship between Gloria and Oscar also takes center stage. At the start of the film, their interaction seems genuinely friendly, if a bit awkward given the length of time they haven’t spoken to each other. Once a spark of attraction lights up between her and one of Oscar’s pals, however, Oscar’s originally sunny demeanor darkens, revealing a bullying, petty personality that masks deep insecurity. This fearsome transformation clearly doesn’t arise (merely) out of jealousy, however, and part of Colossal‘s effectiveness lies in the unbearable suspense of not fully understanding Oscar’s motives and therefore being unable to predict his increasingly dangerous behavior. Pretty soon, he is using the sandbox to hold Gloria hostage (failure to do what he says will result in the death of untold multitudes), marking the film’s transition from seeming pseudo-comedy into full-tilt horror.
Eventually, Colossal does disclose a motive that reaches back to Gloria and Oscar’s shared past, and though this reveal might have, in another film, retroactively diminished the role that alcoholism plays in the progression of the plot, such attenuation doesn’t happen with Colossal. For even as the movie becomes caught up in the particularities of its genre-bending premise, seeming to move away from grand, metaphorical statements about the dangers of alcohol in favor of plot-level specificities, Vigolondo continues to have the subject of alcoholism haunt the film. For instance, Oscar’s sudden shift in disposition coincides with our first view of him drinking to excess, and, in one of the most harrowing moments of the film, Gloria visits Oscar’s house to see that it is trashed and filthy, a total contrast to the chipper, composed front he’d put up for her when they’d first reunited. This revelation doesn’t directly relate to the motive that will later be unveiled. It speaks instead to the insidiously invisible way in which alcoholism often eats away at victims, dismantling their lives even though all appears well on the surface.
All this said, alcoholism and the eleventh-hour reveal are not, in fact, totally separate thematic foci. People often turn to the bottle to turn away from reality, and though Oscar may have a personal reason for behaving as he does, alcohol most definitely makes things worse, clouding his judgment and imprisoning him in a cycle of self-hate. His is, ultimately, a story of tragedy. Gloria’s, on the other hand, is one of fighting back. In a brilliant move, Vigolondo has Oscar’s increasingly apparent alcoholism coincide with the onset of Gloria’s first stretch of alcoholic abstinence. At one point, he tries to coerce her into breaking her sober spell, and through this menacing gesture, the film lets us know that Oscar is the ying to Gloria’s yang, her thematic foil, her dark double, her alternate future. He is what she could be if she gives in, an embodiment of the failure that is so close at hand despite her success thus far.
He is, in other words, her, and in the mirrored divergence that takes place between the two characters, Colossal becomes as much about Gloria fighting a bully as Gloria fighting the part of her that is keeping her from taking her life back. For her, the stakes have likely never been higher. It’s a story that deserves a kaiju-sized telling.