There’s usually a sinking feeling attached to any movie when you realise you’re being preached at. And, by implication, it often doesn’t reflect that well on the storytelling skills of the preacher. Colossal’s a movie that works much better while you’re trying to figure out where it’s going, rather than once you know. Which means a good deal of it is very good, but also that its backend falls out.
I’m no stranger to disappointing Nacho Vigalondo movies, though, or indeed ones that are acclaimed – as Colossal has been – that didn’t quite do it for me. I was in the same boat with his debut Timecrimes. The subsequent Extraterrestrial was likeable but slight. Open Windows, I’ve yet to experience. Vigalondo was guided in his premise by his experience of GamerGate, something I’ve only really encountered through tangential editorials, and its accompanying themes of toxic masculinity and misogyny.
The problem is, once these elements are foregrounded in Colossal, Vigalondo doesn’t seem to have the distance to either integrate them as fluidly as he has juggled the (bizzaro) disparate elements and tones announced thus far or resolve them in a considered, rather than showboating, manner. I’m not fond of the term SJW, but the manner in which he delivers the final third of the movie suggests his crusading instincts got the better of him.
Alcoholic Gloria (Anne Hathaway), thrown out by boyfriend Tim (Dan Stevens), returns to her hometown and promptly encounters seemingly nice, generous, retiring childhood friend Oscar (Jason Sudekis), who offers her a job at his bar.
Which would seem par for the romcom course if not for the prologue scene in which a giant monster is seen in Seoul 25 years earlier. Said monster appears again in Seoul, uncannily at the very points when Gloria has been out on a bender and ends up in a children’s playground. When she eventually tells her drinking buddies, including Joel (Austin Stowell) and Garth (Tim Blake Nelson), that she thinks she is unwittingly controlling the monster, they join her onsite, only to discover that Oscar’s presence magics an additional giant robot into existence in the city.
There’s some very funny and well observed material during this early section. Gloria is alternatively both unsympathetic and likeable while Oscar, despite micro warning signs (he’s been tracking her life while she’s been away; he fails to empathise with the carnage wreaked on Seoul) is an affable guy who genuinely seems to want to help her out (Hathaway is expectedly strong, but Sudekis is a revelation, up to the point where one-note villainy takes over in the final stages). The metaphor of out-of-control behaviour (well, it’s too foregrounded to be called a metaphor) having wider consequences isn’t subtle but it is amusingly conveyed, and the avatar aspect fits neatly enough to those detachedly slugging it out under the cloak of the Internet rather than in the real world.
But I think the picture – ironically, as this is Vigalondo’s entire point – loses something when the focus shifts from Gloria. The director, in envisaging Oscar, said he imagined what he might be like if he’d never made it as a moviemaker and became stuck and jealously twisted in his hometown. Sudekis meanwhile, commented “I hate it when the bad guy is the bad guy from the very beginning”, but the lurch here is so extreme (and yes, I know many would say that’s the point, but it doesn’t need moustache-twirling with it; there are even photographs with Oscar’s ex’s face scratched out, which is movie textbook psycho), it feels polemicised. This isn’t comparable to Something Wild, say, where you can tell Ray Liotta is a powder keg from the first time you see him, and it has too much ground to make up reaching a similarly unhinged end point.
Indeed, Hathaway was given the underwhelming soundbite that this is illustrative of “why you shouldn’t give hateful men great amounts of power”. Which rather reduces the picture to “Duh” motivation, as does a woman pulling herself out from under “traditional male bullshit”. So much so, that all the other men (with the possible exception of Garth) have to be arseholes to illustrate the point; Oscar is only the worst, metaphorically and literally attempting to trap her into an abusive relationship (or he will stomp on Seoul every morning).
So Tim, who entirely reasonably had enough of Gloria in the first scene, is later re-characterised as an obsessive who can’t let go of her (Gloria is right to be surprised by this, as it’s something a non-sequitur development). Joel, meanwhile, who has had his own one-night entanglement with her, sits by and lets Oscar launch in on her verbally, because, for Gloria to regain her self-respect, the wastrel men all need to underline Vigalondo’s overstated point.
The irony of this is that Gloria loses out on proper development because the picture stops being about her solving her problems and sorting her life out and instead becomes all about Oscar, who proceeds to take over the story (again, you could argue that’s the point, but I rather think it does a disservice to your main character). It’s a prime example of a story that begins cleverly, sharply, nuanced even (even if it looks like the initial alcoholism metaphor is as clumsy as the metaphor it becomes), until the message overtakes the telling. Vigalondo even devolves the rationale into all men being bastards because Gloria had her school project stamped on as a child; it’s unnecessarily trite that these are the seeds of Oscar’s jealousy, that she was better than him even then.
Sure, it’s “legitimate” that Vigalondo’s distaste with the kind of behaviour and sentiments he witnessed during GamerGate have led to this narrative, but his response is disappointingly unrestrained, boorishly unsubtle, even. Such that, when Gloria figures out a way to defeat Oscar, it comes complete with a Jerry Bruckheimer or Joel Silver fist-pumping moment of her giant monster self tossing Oscar to his death after he unrepentantly screams “Put me down you bitch!” (Vigalondo partially acquiesced to Hathaway asking him to tone down Gloria’s response, but I don’t think it was enough). The scene is symptomatic of “empowerment” moments designed by men to show they’re in touch with women (cf James Cameron).
I came away thinking there were almost two movies crammed into Colossal, one of which I liked very much, the other I didn’t care for at all. One was inventive and quite clever, the other blundering and preachy. Vigalondo comes up with interesting ideas, I’ll definitely give him that. He just needs to work on coherent plotting and avoiding easy messaging.