Colossal (2016)

colossal-monster-headscratch

Where’s the Kaboom? There was supposed to be an Earth-shattering Kaboom!

Some genre mash-ups seem effortless. Space is an environment perfectly unsuitable to human life and probably full of things that want to eat, brainwash or melt us, hence the ease of sci-fi/horror. A world steeped in testosterone, where every problem can be solved by the conscientious application of automatic weapons is inherently ridiculous, making action/comedy a no-brainer. A dramedy about a person dealing with addiction and failure is, surprisingly, not an apparently natural complement to an effects-heavy, destruction laden kaiju flick. Colossal is one of the most original films to come along in a while, at least partially because it has some of the trappings of a science fiction movie without really being sci-fi. The giant monster stuff is symbolic and mostly background to the real drama, though still contains roughly as much kaiju action as 2014’s Godzilla.

After her copious consumption and general irresponsibility torpedoes her life in New York, Gloria (Anne Hathaway) returns shame-faced to her small home town. This homecoming coincides with the appearance, on the other side of the world, of an enormous creature which carves a path of destruction through Seoul. Gloria is aghast to discover that she and this beast are somehow linked, via the strange time-sensitive properties of a perpetually-abandoned playground. To elaborate further would rob the film of its genuine novelty and literal impact, but as a premise this is a weird and wonderful set-up, and is a clever play on the attempt to regain some sense of normality and self-control in the face of the unforeseen consequences of past damaging behaviour.

Despite the outlandish plot, the film tackles its themes of mental illness and addiction with admirable sense and sensitivity. The questionable science is the only concession to fantasy (there is an argument to be had over whether this is truly sci-fi or just straight-up magical realism). The solutions to genuine problems cannot rely upon magic, and a clear line is drawn between the things by which we are affected and the things for which we can be held responsible, that are within our power to change. Mental illness is not the fault of the afflicted, but their behaviour in dealing with it is their responsibility, and this reaction is the difference between improvement, thoughtlessness and real malevolence. The monster literally magnifies this idea; once you realise the impact of your actions and the harm that they can do, what you do with that power comes to define you.

There is a slight tone problem to the film as it occasionally lurches between comedy and deep seriousness, partially due to its fantastical elements and partially due to some of the characterisation. Hathaway ably captures the essence of her character, balancing the selfishness of an addict with the likeability of someone coming to recognise how badly she has screwed up and trying to do better, sometimes disappointing but never deplorable. However, Jason Sudeikis’ Oscar suffers from some very abrupt shifts, and it is debatable as to whether this is realism or just clumsy writing. It has been argued that inconsistency is more true to human nature than the converse, but within a constructed story this feels more accidental and unsatisfying. This is to mistake complexity for randomness. Despite this, the two central performances do anchor a film that is necessarily faintly absurd, that is about very imperfect people grappling with their own monsters.

Colossal can be enthusiastically recommended because there is nothing else quite like it. It certainly holds the distinction of being the most original giant monster movie in recent years, though it will be profoundly displeasing to kaiju-loving demolition junkies who showed up for the mayhem. Most movies in this genre suffer from a focus on humans at the expense of the monsters, but especially in this case this is not the point. The tradition of metaphorical monsters goes back to the founding fathers, King Kong and Godzilla, so the use of these creatures as symbols ought not to be particularly outrageous. Colossal is something smarter and more subtle, and its flaws may be forgiven in light of its sincerity and its unwillingness to offer a trite oversimplification of its themes. The message is plain, that we become monsters because of what we do, and not because of who we are.

 

Colossal

Written and directed by Nacho Vigalondo

Starring Anne Hathaway, Jason Sudeikis and Dan Stevens

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