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.
March 18th, 2021 at 10:43 am
For SF fans, I’d also recommend Extraterrestrial if you can find it.
I’m going to see if I can find any of Vigalondo’s other six films, Timecrimes (which is in Spanish), Open Windows (with Elijah Wood and Sasha Grey), Pooka! (which might be on Hulu), or Paradise Hills (with Emma Roberts and Milla Jovovich).
They all sound very interesting.
March 18th, 2021 at 10:44 am
BTW, Colossal is available on Hulu.
March 19th, 2021 at 1:25 pm
Sounds like an interesting film. Although I really dislike unsolved mysteries. That said, I suspect the lightning strike thing serves to scratch that itch for most people.
March 19th, 2021 at 4:04 pm
Yeah, the whole backstory is intended to provide some sort of a basis for it all. It’s kind of like finding a lamp with a genie — fantasy just is, and it’s probably best not to ask too many questions!
I get the impression from his other movie I saw, and the descriptions of the ones I haven’t seen, that he’s way more of a fantasy storyteller than a science fiction one, alien spacecraft hovering above the city not withstanding.
March 19th, 2021 at 5:14 pm
I have no issue with fantasy. Most of what is labeled “science fiction”, particularly in media sci-fi, is fantasy anyway, or at least has a hefty dose of fantasy.
But unlike in science fiction, where the concept itself can be a big part of the draw, fantasy concepts, in and of themselves, don’t do anything for me. Story and characters always matter, but they’re really the only draw in fantasy.
March 19th, 2021 at 8:11 pm
I recently saw someone write that, because it uses science that’s not yet true, even hard SF is fantasy, so fantasy is the larger category. In contrast to realistic fiction that could actually happen right now (or realistic historical fiction), I suppose that’s true. It’s just that some fantasy is more magical than technical. Interesting way to look at it.
That said, I agree that science fiction tends more to put the technology as (at least part of) the focus of the story. Although, come to think of it, some fantasy does put the magic central. I suppose even The One Ring is an example.
Ha! “Fiction space” is as complex and fuzzy and hard to define as beer space! 😀
I forget who said it, but way long ago someone said that, “If I blink my eyes and transport across the galaxy, and explain why by physics, real or imagined, then it’s science fiction, but if there is no explanation, or it’s just some form of magic, then it’s fantasy.” I still see fuzzy lines there, but I’ve always thought it was a decent starting point. Star Trek transporters (with all the problems they invoke) are science fiction, but Harry Potter “apperating” (or whatever it was called) is fantasy.
Like you, I’m far more engaged by science fiction. Most ordinary fantasy doesn’t do much for me. I do like stuff that’s funny or that actually manages to take me someplace new (hence why I liked this movie; definitely a new place!) or, in a few cases, as you say, just has a really good story and characters.
Terry Pratchett’s Discworld is fresh, inventive, has great stories and characters, and is incredibly insightful and compelling, so despite my SF bias, Discworld remains my all-time favorite — my desert island books, so to speak. (It’s been long enough to start thinking about reading them again. Maybe this time in the order written.)
March 20th, 2021 at 9:22 am
Years ago I listened to the podcast of the producers of the TV show Lost, where they often spent time answering fan questions, at least to an extent. One question they got was whether there would be a scientific explanation for what was going on in the room where the button had to keep being pressed. Damon Lindelof responded that the explanation would have “the trappings” of a scientific explanation, that it wouldn’t be explicitly supernatural, but he made no commitment to it actually being scientific. (If you watched the show, you’ll know that description is about right.)
I think that’s true more generally. Science fiction has the trappings of science or technology, at least to the extent that most of the audience accepts it as so. Harder science fiction just raises those trappings to a higher standard that a more science literate audience might accept.
Even The One Ring is more of a plot device to explore good, evil, and temptation. No one really thinks about how a ring of power would actually work. The nerd books on Middle Earth tend to be about maps rather than how the power of Sauron, Gandalf, or the Balrog actually works. (There is a decades long debate about whether balrogs had wings, but that’s because Tolkien was intentionally vague.)
But on the good and evil point, that’s where both science fiction and fantasy can also add to the story, exploring philosophical concepts that regular fiction has a hard time getting at. From what I know of the Discworld series, that seems to be a lot of Pratchett’s appeal. It was a lot of Douglas Adams’ as well.
March 20th, 2021 at 12:46 pm
I never watched Lost, so I don’t know about the button. Nothing I heard about the show seemed to make it my cup of tea. I got the sense, perhaps inaccurately, that it was, or seemed to be, made up as it went along, which means there wasn’t a lot of world-building up front. I learned long ago that good world-building was key to my ability to really get into a story, especially a series. (As we touched on recently, movies are a kind of “one-off” that can get away with things that simply couldn’t be sustained over time.)
“Science fiction has the trappings of science or technology,”
I know what you’re saying, and maybe this is just quibbling over a word, but I think it’s more than just trappings (which are basically appearances or ornaments). To me it’s, again, about the world-building. Science fiction (to me — this is all a bit definitional) posits a world that operates according to physics as we understand it. The fantasy aspect may be in extending the physics, but the grounding assumption is that it all might be possible.
Things I’d label as fantasy either ignore physics or add a kind of entirely new physics, called magic — the supernatural rather than the natural.
Which is why I’ve long liked that bit I mentioned before about “if I explain” as a rough first cut. Fantasy doesn’t need explanation, it just is. SF might not always explain, but the presumption is that there is a physical explanation lurking in the background.
“Science Fiction” author Hannu Raganiemi (The Quantum Thief trilogy and many short stories) is a good example. It feels like hard SF — in this case “trappings” is exactly right — but it’s actually almost pure fantasy. It’s just that the magic is quantum or other high tech. (Raganiemi is quite open about this being the case.)
Which speaks to the fuzziness of these categories. The real world is so very hard to categorize. Or create hierarchies for. 😉
FWIW, “hard” SF, to me, measures how close to actually possible the fantasy science is. It’s about a world very much like ours, but with just a little bit extra. And the more plausible that extra bit is, the harder the SF. The really hard stuff just extrapolates progress.
“No one really thinks about how a ring of power would actually work.”
Right, exactly! It just is. What I meant in citing it is that it’s central to the plot and drives it. I’d say it’s more than just a MacGuffin — it had a back story of its creation and purpose and has important links to the other rings and peoples. (The briefcase in Pulp Fiction is an almost perfect MacGuffin to me. It could be replaced by a huge variety of other objects without changing the plot at all. Without the One Ring, there is no story.)
“But on the good and evil point, that’s where both science fiction and fantasy can also add to the story, exploring philosophical concepts that regular fiction has a hard time getting at.”
I couldn’t agree more! That’s why I love SF so much. It’s able to explore human topics from fresh angles not available to realistic fiction (which usually bores me — same old, same old — I want to be taken somewhere new).
Oddly, I’m not that engaged by surrealism, which often feels like science fiction for authors and readers who don’t get science fiction. I’ve tried three times now to read Infinite Jest, but it’s bored me each time, and I’ve put it down. To me it’s just lame SF. And apparently the sort of thing one gloms onto in their 20s and sees ever after as a defining work.
OTOH, I have become quite enamored of Paul Beatty, whose writing is decidedly surreal. And yet so amazingly gritty and realistic. And lyrical and erudite and just sheer fun to read. (See the tail end of this comment and all of this one for more. BTW, that first comment also mentions I read my first Corey Doctorow novel with somewhat mixed results. I’ll have to try others to see what I think.)
“From what I know of the Discworld series, that seems to be a lot of Pratchett’s appeal. It was a lot of Douglas Adams’ as well.”
It’s very common to compare the two. I do love both; they’re both in my special bookshelf. (Pratchett takes up a much larger portion of it!) I’ve read both many, many times (like every few years).
I don’t see them as all that similar, though. I was asked once which I thought was best, and to me it’s like comparing a galaxy of stars (Discworld) to a supernova (Hitchhiker). In many regards Hitchhiker outshines, but (despite a five-book “trilogy”) it’s just one thing. Almost a one-note thing; the later books don’t really extend the ideas of the first.
But Pratchett’s Discworld is almost beyond description. Each novel has a separate theme. There are also the primary threads that run through the tapestry: The City Watch; The Witches; the character DEATH; the Wizards at the Unseen University; and a few one-off books. Pratchett is far more insightful and much deeper than Adams ever was.
It says something that nearly all my favorite SF is hard or hard-ish, but Pratchett’s Discworld reigns above them all head and shoulders.
March 20th, 2021 at 3:09 pm
With Lost, they did have a story worked out in advance. The producers took pains to point out that they’d laid down markers very early in the first season that pertained to the final explanation. However, after the show took off, they added a lot of extensions to the original arc. At the end, it was easy to see what was the original and what was added later. Not that there wasn’t an enormous amount of ad hoc stuff, some of which was driven by the popularity or unpopularity of various characters as well as actors flaking out on them.
That briefcase in Pulp Fiction is the most McGuffin McGuffin I’ve ever seen. It’s very McGuffinness called attention to it. (The glow helped too.)
I’m with you on surrealism, or at least surrealism for its own sake. I don’t mind when it means something. When it’s just strangeness for strangeness sake, I’m far less captivated. The problem is it’s hard to tell which version you’re reading / seeing at the beginning, whether it will eventually come to a resolution of some type. (In the case of books, once an author has shown a tendency to do that though, I rarely read them again.)
I need to take another shot at Discworld at some point. I tried reading the post office one, but it wasn’t really drawing me in. I see Mort and Guards, Guards! are the most commonly recommended books to start with.
March 20th, 2021 at 5:46 pm
Yeah, Tarantino himself left the contents of the briefcase undefined. Even in his own mind, it wasn’t anything specific. (The “most McGuffin McGuffin” — I like that!)
Surrealism as part of a story is my least favorite, too. It seems to serve the same purpose as the narrator being on a drug trip or something. Stories that are fully surreal are a kind of fantasy but with even fewer rules, so it’s jarring on a logical mind (which, I suppose, is the point). Historically I think it’s served the same purpose as fantasy and SF in giving an author much more latitude to tell a story.
Which may be why it often leaves me cold. I’d rather read SF. 🙂
The thing about Paul Beatty’s novels are, firstly, if there was one word to describe the experience of being Black in America, “surreal” would be a really good one. Beatty uses surrealism to, I think, reflect that. It oddly also lets him make the story more accessible, I think. It allows the rage to peek through without overly coloring the story with it. And it’s not crazy surrealism, but what I’ve decided to call (aping “magical realism”) surreal realism. For all of being a bit off-kilter, there is a strong and gripping reality to the novels.
There is also that Beatty is just simply one hell of a good writer.
Mort is the first (but not best) of the DEATH novels, although it’s good to start at the beginning — later stories do have some back references. (But the Discworld novels do generally stand alone. One just misses some texture and context.) I think Reaper Man (#2) is pretty awesome, and so is Hogfather (#4), although by then there’s a far amount of context and back story one would miss. Soul Music (#3) is my favorite (see this post), but does require some background in rock-n-roll to fully appreciate.
Guards! Guards! is the first of the City Watch novels, which star Sam Grimes — for many readers their favorite character. Grimes is unquestionably one of Pratchett’s voices and definitely a great character. The City Watch novels almost have to be read in sequence to appreciate. Both the City Watch and Grimes grow and evolve a lot along the thread. (That said, after reading that one, and perhaps Men At Arms (#2), it would provide enough grounding for any of the others.)
Going Postal is kind of late Pratchett (Discworld #33) and perhaps not his strongest. It also probably does require having read earlier books to get more of a sense of how Discworld works. It’s #4 in what’s called the “Industrial Revolution” thread, which novels introduce, respectively, motion pictures (which turns out to be a horrible idea), newspapers (a good idea), women in combat (also good), an “internet” of sorts, and modern banking.
Going Postal is interesting for introducing the “clacks” — Pratchett’s version of the internet. It uses tall towers and complex visual signaling. Technical people can find a lot to like in the book — comparisons to the internet — but, as I say, it’s best to have a grounding in Discworld to fully appreciate it.
If I had to pick one, I think I’d go with Guards! Guards!. It’s Discworld #8, so it’s early enough as a starting point. (That said, Mort is Discworld #4.)
March 20th, 2021 at 3:13 pm
The more I come to embrace the obvious solution to Fermi’s Paradox (there is no paradox, we’re alone), the less I can endure the fantastical. I too enjoyed this film, years ago. Today? I stand incredulous at nearly every treatment and presentation of the impossible.
March 20th, 2021 at 5:08 pm
Totally with ya on the Fermi Paradox thing. Unless the human species grows up a lot more, we’re not going to space in any big way any time soon. We’re far more likely to enter a kind of sawtooth cycle of advancing and then — as we are now — backsliding towards Medieval thinking. Until we inch forward again. I’d place extremely high odds against us ever even leaving the Solar System let alone colonizing the galaxy.
I share your problem with fantasy bullshit, too. I think it has led us in a muck-mire of echoing bubble worlds. (I’ve been posting about it a lot lately.) The trick, it seems to me, is to have a good grounding in factual things and a strong sense of realism and truth. A good grasp of science and logic and critical thinking.
I’ve been in awe of Leon Wieseltier’s ten word summary of modern culture ever since he said it on The Colbert Report back in 2014: “Too much digital; not enough critical thinking; more physical reality.” Fucking nailed it!
March 20th, 2021 at 10:02 pm
Wow, oh wow, oh wow.
I just watched the saddest most heartbreaking movie I can recall ever seeing. It’s a Japanese anime, Grave of the Fireflies (1988), which follows two war orphans, Seita (14) and his little sister, Setsuko, who is, maybe four or so.
I’ve had this in my queue for a very long time, and, knowing it was a powerful film, put off seeing it until I felt up to it. In part because it appeared Hulu was going to end its availability, and because I’ve been taking vitamin D which has really helped my mood lately, I watched it tonight, and it absolutely ripped my heart out.
It’s a deeply, profoundly moving piece of art, rightfully acknowledge as a masterwork.
Probably something you should see with someone you love, because it will devastate you.
April 11th, 2021 at 12:58 pm
[…] Colossal (2016) — budget of $15 million and a return of only $4.5 million. This one didn’t break even in a big way! […]