One of my least favorite movie cliches goes something like this:
A person who lives in the city has an existential crisis. They reluctantly return to their hometown, where things are much simpler and quieter. The main character reconnects with an old friend (who is prettier or more handsome than they remember), sparking a romance that causes a reassessment of fundamental values. Our hero decides to eschew city life for the calm, quotidian beauty of the home they left behind, as if this place, some sand in the oyster, has become a pearl—or, maybe, it was a pearl all along.
Ugh. How treacly.
Nacho Vigalondo’s Colossal nods to that cliche and then upends it, opting for a much pricklier exploration of bad relationships and self-destructive urges. In its own way and on its own terms, Colossal has secured a spot on my list for the best films of 2017.
Director: Nacho Vigalondo
Release Date: April 7, 2017 (limited)
Gloria (Anne Hathaway) skulks into her boyfriend’s apartment and gets kicked out. She’s an alcoholic and self-absorbed, and like any real life screw-up, Gloria excels at screwing up her attempts at getting un-screwed-up. She moves into her empty childhood home. She sleeps on the floor in an uninflated air mattress; she rolls into it like the filling in a burrito. A childhood friend named Oscar (Jason Sudeikis) helps get her back on her feet with a job at his bar and a little bit of furniture.
And for some reason, whenever Gloria does a certain thing in the morning, a giant monster shows up in Seoul, South Korea. And for some reason, Gloria is able to control it.
I love absurd conceits like this. The weirdness is the whole allure of the world created, and it serves as a foundation for some larger metaphor. Once the goofiness of the set-up clears (it doesn’t entirely), Vigalondo and his cast take it deadly serious, as if all this strangeness has life-or-death consequences. That’s weirdness wielded right rather than weirdness for its own sake. All of this is in service to a pomo allegory about (initially) screwing up.
Using the kaiju as a guide, I could see Gloria drunkenly careening through her entire life without any regard for the lives she’s affected. When you’re drunk or depressed or your life is in such haze that you’ve become oblivious to the world around you, it can be difficult to see that you’re hurting others. In Gloria’s case, pissing off bosses or boyfriends is nothing, but now she sees news footage of how bad choices lead to the suffering of dozens, even hundreds, of total strangers. The guilt is immense because the scale of moral consequence is magnified to an absurd level.
It’s an inversion, and I think an intentional one, of the idea that one death is a tragedy while a million deaths are a statistic. For Gloria, those interpersonal, everyday interactions aren’t enough to cause a major existential reassessment, but at this scale with so many people at stake, suddenly the implication of a city in peril calls attention to a one-on-one ethical interaction. To put it another way, the cries of a hundred strangers somehow magnify the faces of the people in front of her. Ditto her own face in the mirror.
Hathaway has a great way of conveying the moral shock of it all in her eyes and on her face. Sometimes she winces with a “Did I do that?” expression, like spilling a drink. Other times she’s doubled over with guilt, bawling, as if watching people in front of her suffer; worse, she feels too helpless to do anything about it. And yet there’s more to Colossal than this single metaphor played out to its logical conclusion. The conclusion is not so clear cut.
There are different kinds of monsters in Colossal. Without giving anything away, the film focuses just as much on the people we know as it does on the inner demons we’re not quite acquainted with. The monster in Seoul gives the audience a projection of Gloria’s interior life. As I watched Gloria with her ex-boyfriend and certain people in her hometown, I got a clear, sad, familiar portrait of her interpersonal life filled with “nice guys”, toxic masculinity, and different forms of abuse. Most men treat her like a child, like a sexual conquest, like an irredeemable screw up, like someone beneath and always dependent on them.
Maybe Gloria’s monster, destroyer of cities, is not just a kaiju made of her many mess-ups. Maybe it’s also a response to the men who put her down, demean her, and try to keep her compliant, weak, insecure, and small. It’s self-destruction writ large on the one hand, but maybe it’s also a strong and ennobling part of Gloria.
Good symbols have different—sometimes even contradictory—facets to them, just like complicated people and lovable stories. From one angle, a dazzling light, from others a murky view of the world, but it’s all of a piece. I keep turning Colossal around in my mind, admiring its angles and performances, how it fits together in an asymmetrical way. Mostly, though, I love how seriously it takes Gloria in the face of such gargantuan weirdness.