What makes a monster? It’s a question that director Nacho Vigalondo (“Timecrimes,” “Open Windows”) explores both literally and figuratively in “Colossal,” a monster movie that truly defies any preconceived notions of that description. Indeed, Toho, who own the rights to Godzilla, thought they had the film figured out, suing production company Voltage Pictures over concerns that “Colossal” would infringe on their copyrights. But their lawsuit wound up being dismissed, and with good reason. While “Colossal” features a big monster that threatens the citizens of Seoul, South Korea, that element is only a small part of the film, and acts as a metaphor for the beasts that dwell within creatures who are capable of equally horrific damage: human beings.
Anne Hathaway’s Gloria walks into “Colossal” bearing the trainwreck qualities of the actress’ titular lead in “Rachel Getting Married.” Arriving home hungover and in disarray, it’s the last straw for her boyfriend Tim (Dan Stevens). He orders Gloria to pack her bags and leave his Manhattan apartment, and with no job and nowhere else to stay, she returns home to Maidenhead, New Jersey moving into her parents’ old house. But Gloria has barely unpacked when she crosses paths with Oscar (Jason Sudeikis), a childhood friend. While his life hasn’t taken him to the big city like Gloria, he’s nonetheless carved out his niche in Maidenhead, taking over and renovating the bar his father use to run. Gloria takes a part-time job at the bar, but things soon take a supernatural twist.
It sounds strange to write it in this review, and certainly for Gloria it’s not easy to explain, but somehow she’s managed to figure out that at 8:05 AM every morning, if she stands in a certain neighborhood playground, she somehow materializes as a fearsome monster halfway around the world. A simple gesture could send her counterpart’s arm smashing into a skyscraper, a sudden movement creates a reign of terror in Seoul that results in real lives being lost. Though this event only lasts for a few minutes each time, it’s enough to get Gloria to start sobering up, but not before sharing and showing her new barfly friends — Oscar, Garth (Tim Blake Nelson), and Joel (Austin Stowell) — what she’s discovered. But she’ll quick learn there’s a bigger monster stalking Maidenhead, and it’s hiding right in the small social circle she’s established.
“Colossal” takes a fascinating pivot in its second half, and finds Vigalondo offering an enriching thematic parallel to the very real, giant lizard the film also presents. The writer/director takes a chilling look at how self-hatred, perceived emasculation, coupled with jealousy and regret creates a swirling set of ingredients by which abusers and emotional manipulators take root. Gloria begins to see that her return to Maidenhead has only stoked fires of resentment against her that have been simmering for years, and upon the revelation of her supernatural curse, she doesn’t find sympathy, but gives those who have long wished to exact revenge on Gloria for having the ambition and talent to see a life beyond Maidenhead a weapon to use against her. As you might guess, how exactly these elements unfurl are part of the surprise of “Colossal,” and what takes it from being simply a quirky monster movie, into something rooted in the real world mechanics of how toxic people wreak their own terrible havoc.
In substance, it might be Vigalondo’s most ambitious film to date. And while there’s a sense at times of his uncertainty in fully committing to the ideas on the page, in the moments when the conceptual component of “Colossal” is fully embraced, the results are truly chilling. Thus, it’s not a complete shock that when Vigalondo turns back to explain the provenance of Gloria’s monstrous curse, the results can only be somewhat disappointing; it’s actually the straight genre fare in the movie that’s not as compelling. And some of that may be chalked up to what is clearly a severely limited budget for the film, with VFX that are often ropey, crying out for more money to thrown at them. By contrast, having a cast with the likes of Hathaway and Sudeikis certainly aids in enriching Vigalondo’s film and giving it a depth beyond its intriguing premise.
So, what makes a monster? The answer Vigalondo provides is that it’s everything both inside and out, unreal and real, that are capable of being turned into a tools of destruction. But sometimes the carnage is far less obvious than felled buildings, and bodies in the street. Rather, it’s how failure and the sense of defeat curdles into a misguided sense of exacting revenge on a world that has wronged you. It’s the kind of ground that breeds terrorists, killers and sometimes scariest of all, an old friend who just wants to help when you’re down on your luck, but also senses an opening to gain the upper hand. [B]