“What does it have to do with me?” Gloria (Anne Hathaway) is in a bar, listening to a story. She’s just met the guy who’s telling it, and she’s just arrived back in her hometown after years of not quite achieving the success she once imagined. By this time in Colossal, you’re not surprised to hear Gloria announce her lack of interest in anyone but herself. But the guys sitting with her, Garth (Tim Blake Nelson) and Joel (Austin Stowell) are momentarily taken aback. Still, she’s a pretty girl and she’s willing to drink with them, so they’re willing to change the subject to one she likes: her.
While Gloria’s social skills aren’t the precise focus of Nacho Vigalondo’s new movie, they do serve as a means to other ends, including her self-reflection and eventual redemption. So far, so regular: Gloria’s an angry, frustrated alcoholic. The film opens as her boyfriend Tim (Dan Stevens) kicks her out of their nicely appointed New York City apartment, complaining, “You’re a mess and you’re out of control.” Indeed, she’s unable to stop herself from slipping deeper into her addiction, unable to admit she even has one.
Her return home doesn’t inspire reunions with family, only a place to stay at her dead parents’ house. She goes through some motions, purchasing an air mattress and checking her email via public WiFi. She sleeps a lot, usually in awkward positions that bring pain: she wakes with her neck crooked or her back strained. As she stretches or unkinks her back, the camera tends to hang back, observing her long limbs contort.
It’s this vision — Anne Hathaway contorting — that serves as a means to another end, which is Colossal‘s big metaphor, namely, a monster ravaging the city of Seoul. That would be a literal monster, large and lizardy, recalling Godzilla but not related to nuclear fallout. Instead, this monster appears intermittently, stomping through city streets, smashing through buildings, and stepping on people. Such activity sends the international news media into a tizzy. When she spots one of the stories on her laptop on a morning after a drunken blackout, Gloria’s appropriately horrified, but not so horrified that she doesn’t persist in her new routine, which is to say, working a few hours to pay some bills and drinking at night.
These two pieces fit together nicely, as the owner of the bar where she finds a part time job is Oscar (Jason Sudekis), an old elementary school classmate who never left town. Their relationship is pocked by jealousy and resentment on both sides, a point underlined by flashbacks that fill in parts of Gloria’s puzzle, gesturing toward her upsets as a little girl, her predisposition to pick a bully for a boyfriend, and maybe even some psychological background for her addiction. None of this explains the movie magic that affiliates Gloria with the monster, but there it is: after she sees more attacks on TV on a few mornings after she blacks out, Gloria puts together that she is the monster, somehow affecting Seoul while she’s staggering about in a children’s playground located somewhere between the bar and her house.
The rest of Gloria’s story involves her trying to convince the guys that she is the monster, while she also does her best to stop drinking and be responsible. That this process is shaped like a moral question leaves out a lot that might be pertinent to another kind of story about addiction, and the externalization of Gloria’s demons forgets the potent political points made by all those B movies about monsters, however obviously or obliquely. But Gloria’s dilemma offers its own questions, worthy and sometimes absorbing. A woman in pursuit of self-confidence is surrounded by men who see their privilege ebbing away. Adults can’t let go of their childhood grievances or recognize consequences of what they might do, however accidentally.
These interpersonal dramas look almost new when disguised as the monster movie. Gloria’s evolution, made visible first in Hathaway’s body choreography, part spastic and part aching, and then mapped onto the monster’s gyrations, is a bracing sort of spectacle, thoughtful, funny, and not a little weird. On top of this, the film also lays a critique of the media industry, so-called news as entertainment, all sensational pictures and shiny objects all the time. This critique might get you thinking about how you watch the news, what you expect from it, and how you might be accountable for it.
The audiences assembled for these displays take several forms. The crew at Oscar’s bar (namely, the four primary players), who watch the shows on the TV in the bar or at Gloria’s house, and then, so they can match her movements in the playground with the stomping in Seoul, on their iPads. The film cuts from their astonished faces to the crowds running for their lives whenever the monster materializes, and then stopping to applaud it when, in a shift of plot suitable for a sequel,
the first monster fights off another monster, a malicious robot type who makes it his mission to hurt people. Entertaining as they are, these evolving spectacles make clear the stakes — or lack of stakes — that fickle viewers (or say, Anne Hathaway fans) might share, as they seek thrills or laughs but don’t think so much about artists or victims or even monsters.
Colossal, for all its attention to Gloria’s troubles and life lessons, uses her to another end. In thinking through the many ways that media create effects, the ideas they shape, the assumptions they confirm, the questions they shut down and the damage they do. Along the way, the movie also poses questions about just these effects, and asks you to consider your own responsibility for what and how you watch.