Last night I watched a fun little film, Colossal (2016), written and directed by Nacho Vigalondo. Unfortunately it was a financial flop with a box office of only $4.5 million against a $15 million budget. That’s unfortunate, because it makes it harder for such creative efforts to get made.
It stars Anne Hathaway and Jason Sudeikis, both of whom, from a playground in New England, turn out to have the power to manifest and control giant monsters that appear in, and terrorize, Seoul, Korea. (It’s not quite as random as it sounds.)
It’s a very inventive story that delighted me, and I recommend it as more than worth seeing for any fan of interesting movies.
It’s billed as a black comedy, but I think that’s wrong. It’s certainly a bit black — it’s essentially a horror film with a dash of psychological terrorizing on the side — but it has almost no comedy. There are some vaguely lighthearted beats in the first part, but it gets dark and even a bit ugly in the later parts.
The last scene does have a nice beat, and the ending is satisfying, but no way would I call the film a comedy. None of that makes the film unworthy, just don’t expect to find much humor in it. At best it gets a bit wry in places.
Unless you’re a devoted cinephile it’s unlikely you’ve seen any other films by Spanish director-writer Nacho Vigalondo. He has only six feature films to his credit, the first two of which are in Spanish. Colossal is his fourth film.
I have seen his second film, Extraterrestrial (2011), which is a Spanish science fiction (romantic) comedy about an alien spacecraft that suddenly appears over the city. As I recall, it was a strange but very engaging film.
Based on these two, I’ll warn science fiction fans that Vigalondo seems more a fantasy storyteller than a science fiction one, even when alien spacecraft are involved. In Extraterrestrial, for instance, the alien spacecraft serves mainly to drive the story about the lives of the characters. I can’t recall that we see the aliens or get any explanation of what their visit is about. It’s more a backdrop to the character story.
But it’s a very creative backdrop for what is ultimately a small romantic comedy with some mystery. Vigalondo, especially looking at the descriptions of his other films, is an inventive storyteller, and I give a lot of points for a story takes me somewhere I’ve never been.
Colossal delivers that on all cylinders. I was never bored and never had any sense of “because script” — for all it’s a fantasy monster movie, the characters are real and, if not always likeable or even engaging, are certainly compelling.
The basic idea is that Gloria (Anne Hathaway) and childhood friend Oscar (Jason Sudeikis) discover that, from a small playground in New England, they can cause giant monster puppets to appear in Seoul. These follow every movement Gloria and Oscar make while on the playground.
Gloria is horrified and, once she realizes what’s happening, wants to end it, but Oscar (the villain in the piece) uses this unexpected power to manipulate and terrorize Gloria. If she doesn’t do what he wants, he’ll go on wreaking havoc on Seoul, go on killing and destroying.
The movie begins one early morning in New York city when Gloria, a wannabe writer struggling with alcoholism, stumbles into the apartment she shares with her boyfriend, Tim (Dan Stevens), after a night of drinking.
Tim, who has had enough of these mornings, has already packed her bags and tells her she should be gone before he returns home after work. Gloria is devastated but complies. Having nowhere else to go, she returns to her home town, “Mainhead, New England.”
It’s an indicator of Vigalondo’s fantasy storytelling that New England is a region, not a state, and no such town, Mainhead, exists. (In fact, the movie was shot in Canada.) Seoul, Korea, does exist obviously, but unless the filmmakers went there (the budget suggests not), it’s probably actually Vancouver. (It’s also something of an indicator that none of the characters have last names.)
After Tim leaves, there’s a brief scene I don’t understand and don’t see what it adds to the film. Gloria’s no account friends have been lurking outside in a car, and when they see Tim leave they invade the apartment and… I’m not even sure what.
What’s weird is that, while they clearly enter the apartment, the background seems more like an office. They were definitely waiting outside for Tim to leave, and they enter the same doorway Gloria entered, but the inside of the apartment is different than in the earlier scenes with Tim.
We learn later that Gloria was fired from her job writing for an online magazine, which makes the office vibe even stranger. I don’t really know what the scene is for other than maybe to illustrate some kind of surreal shock Gloria is experiencing. It’s the one part of the movie I found inexplicable.
Gloria moves back to Mainhead to live in her parents empty house that they never managed to rent or sell. The parents are either dead or moved away. I suspect the former.
She meets childhood friend Oscar, who owns and runs his father’s bar. His parents have passed on. That Gloria doesn’t even remember attending his mother’s funeral long ago shows us both Gloria’s mental condition and, in a very subtle way, Oscar’s true inner nature.
Oscar seems friendly enough, glad to reunite with Gloria after all these years, and he offers her a job working at his bar.
This is a non-ideal situation for Gloria, because after the bar closes she, Oscar, and two of Oscar’s friends, Joel (Austin Stowell) and Garth (Tim Blake Nelson), spend the rest of the night drinking. Gloria stumbles home in the first light of dawn — her path taking her through a small playground.
The next day the news is filled with reports about a giant reptilian monster that terrorized Seoul. Gloria notices something odd: The monster sometimes appears to scratch an itch at the top of its head, exactly like Gloria does — something she’s blamed on a nervous tick.
Looking closer she sees the monster miming as if it is carrying a large sack over its shoulder. Gloria was carrying a large sack over her shoulder when she walked home from the bar. (The sack contains the big air mattress she bought to sleep on. She was walking home with it when she met Oscar, who drove her to the bar to show it to her and then offered her a job starting immediately, so Gloria still had the sack when she walked home.)
After another night of post-closing drinking, Gloria returns to the playground and performs some specific moves. Then she watches the news and sees the monster doing those same moves. She makes the connection between herself, the playground, and the monster.
Flashbacks tell us, to some extent, why this is happening. Back in grade school, Gloria made a diorama of Seoul for a school project. Oscar made one of Madrid. Walking to school, Gloria’s is grabbed from her hands by the wind and blown into a woody area that will someday be the playground. Oscar goes to retrieve it, but upon finding it, out of jealousy, stomps it flat (because his isn’t as good).
Gloria sees him do it, and her rage somehow invokes a lighting bolt that hits the top of her head (causing her adult nervous twitch of scratching that spot). The lightning causes both to faint, we see that both are carrying monster toys that match the monsters they manifest as adults.
That’s all the explanation we ever get.
The third morning she brings Oscar, Joel, and Garth, along with laptops and phones, to demonstrate what’s happening. Real-time newsfeeds confirm the monster apes Gloria’s every movement.
It also turns out that she can feel missiles fired at the monster, and she inadvertently destroys a helicopter that crashes into her forehead (which also hurts). Gloria panics and faints, Oscar goes to help her, and that is when a giant robot appears mimicking Oscar’s movements.
Gloria, horrified at the damage and death of the helicopter pilot, determines to stop (and to stop drinking). With Oscar’s help, she gets a Korean translation of a message that she’s sorry and won’t appear any more. She makes what she intends as a last appearance to write that message on the ground, carefully tracing the Korean characters.
Then, from loneliness, she spends the night with Joel (because he’s the cute one), but that invokes serious jealousy from Oscar, who turns out to be a self-hating manipulative asshat who wants to possess Gloria. He threatens to rampage through Seoul unless Gloria continues drinking with them and does not return to her boyfriend Tim who has showed up in town hoping to get Gloria back.
At this point things get a bit ugly (definitely not funny) — none of the male characters are worth a damn, but Oscar especially. (This is very much Anne Hathaway’s movie.) Things get violent between Gloria and Oscar as he seeks to control her and she seeks to escape.
The problem is that Oscar has the upper hand because of his ability to rampage murderously in Seoul. Gloria isn’t strong enough to stop him.
I won’t spoil the ending, you should see it for yourself. I’ll just say that Gloria does come up with a satisfying solution. There is also the very last beat of the film, which is damn near perfect — certainly quite delightful and kind of funny.
The film isn’t perfect (almost no film is). It leaves some things unexplained. (Did Oscar burn down his bar? Why does he park in the middle of the parking lot far from the door? Where, exactly, does all this originate?)
As such I give it a strong Ah! rating and recommend it for any fan of interesting and inventive stories.
Stay colossal, my friends! Go forth and spread beauty and light.