My biggest concern walking into Colossal was whether Nacho Vigalondo—the promising Spanish director of low budget but imaginative science fiction films such as Timecrimes and Extraterrestrial—would be stifled by the prospect of what is presumably the largest budget and most significant cast of his film career. Duncan Jones, after all, found a way to work the iconoclastic, hard sci-fi spirit of Moon into his first wide-release film, Source Code, before being hamstrung by studio demands in the would-be blockbuster trappings of Warcraft. It would be a great shame if Vigalondo were to suffer the same fate.
Thankfully, this is not the case. What Nacho Vigalondo has created in Colossal is a truly unusual, sometimes head-scratching aberration, a film with tonal shifts so jarring that the audience’s definition of its genre is likely to change repeatedly in the course of watching it. Aspects of the film defy explanation, but one thing is clear: Nobody was stifling the writer-director, and we’ve been given one of the most interesting films of 2017 so far. Vigalondo takes aim at the cliches of film festival dramas before smashing them under a giant, monstrous foot.
Gloria (Anne Hathaway) is a mess. She’s a 30-something “writer” of the sort one sees in film and nowhere else—the kind who never does any writing, but simply mentions occasionally that they’re “a writer,” while the other characters all inform the audience of the writer’s Very Important Perspective. She lives with her boyfriend Tim (Dan Stevens, of TV’s Legion), but rarely sees him because of more pressing, booze-related matters, which leads to him suggesting they spend time apart. In doing so, one must note that Hathaway makes for one of screendom’s least convincing binge-drinkers here, largely given the fact that the film seemingly goes out of its way to never depict her as anything but radiant and perfectly coifed. One wonders if she recently looked back on Rachel Getting Married and thought, “Alright, I’m not getting that messed up playing an addict again.”
Regardless, after being thrown out Gloria pulls a Greta Gerwig-style “getting my life together” decision and moves into her old family home in the sticks, now emptied out for reasons that are never entirely explained. There, she runs into childhood friend Oscar (Jason Sudeikis), who has apparently been carrying a torch for her and following her career as a nothing-writer with great interest. He owns a bar, where Gloria begins to work in a particularly ill-advised move, as this puts her into constant contact with both alcohol and his drunk friends Joel (Austin Stowell) and Garth (Tim Blake Nelson, sadly wasted).
If that description so far sounds like an indie dramedy—sort of a Silver Linings Playbook with more booze and less dancing—then you’re right, because it functionally is for the first 20 minutes. But as you know if you’ve seen any of Colossal’s trailers, there’s also a much more colorful wrinkle. When a giant monster appears in Seoul, South Korea shortly after Gloria’s arrival in her hometown, she soon becomes aware that her own actions—her actual, physical movements in a specific area of town—are directly linked to the creature. So it’s more like Godzilla meets Being John Malkovich.
Oh, and she’s also directly responsible for hundreds or thousands of deaths. Did we mention that?
Yeah. This is the moment when Colossal goes from being something the audience believes it understands to a much more complex, dire, darkly fantastical tale. A switch has flipped, and the nature of the monster(s) transforms from black comedy to an intense outward manifestation of guilt, mental illness and crippling social issues. You can call that shift abrupt (it is), but it’s also captivating. What looked like “indie dramedy” simply drops the “edy” and doesn’t look back.
That huge shift is largely thanks to Jason Sudeikis, who is playing what is almost certainly the strangest, most unnerving film character of his career. Without giving too much away, I will say only that it’s a portrayal that will likely spur plenty of analysis, hot takes and think pieces on its depiction of toxic masculinity. It’s his mental health that drags the film into deep waters, making it all about control and the simmering, implied threat of violence. Sudeikis is frankly frightening at times; chatting with some of my fellow theater-goers after the film, we discussed the disturbing aspect of watching a character who you can’t at all predict. He seems capable of anything, in the worst possible way, all while wrapped in the veneer of a “nice guy.” The audience ends up distrustful and somewhat ashamed of their own preconceived notions of his character, conditioned as we are to see his archetype in a specific light when meeting him.
Colossal is simply a much darker, more serious-minded film than one could possibly go in expecting, judging from the marketing materials and rather misleading trailers. It blooms into a story about sacrifice and martyrdom, while simultaneously featuring an array of largely unlikable characters who are not “good people” in any measurable way. I understand that description sounds at odds with itself, but this film is often at odds with itself. But in the cognitive dissonance this creates, it somehow finds a streak of feminist individuality and purpose it couldn’t have even attempted to seek as a straight-up comedy.
Colossal is a profoundly weird film—weirder than the already strange synopsis would even imply. We need more films like this, and we need them in wide release. We need more directors like Nacho Vigalondo who take joy in upending tropes and encouraging the audience to reexamine its ingrained expectations for how a film is going to play out. The presence of a film like Colossal is a necessary catalyst for creativity in movie-making.
If the movie is successful, Vigalondo could very well be the next “visionary indie director” to get the Gareth Edwards, Colin Trevorrow or Duncan Jones treatment, given the keys to a $200 million blockbuster tentpole. It’s a worrisome thought, considering what happened to Jones, or to Josh Trank’s Fantastic Four. Personally, I hope the Spanish director gets a chance to hang out in the strata of Colossal for a while, making films with moderate budgets and, more importantly, writing his own scripts.
Then again, maybe he really could become the next Guillermo Del Toro. I can’t wait to find out.
Director: Nacho Vigalondo
Writer: Nacho Vigalondo
Starring: Anne Hathaway, Jason Sudeikis, Dan Stevens, Tim Blake Nelson, Austin Stowell
Release Date: April 7, 2017
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and giant monster appreciator. You can follow him on Twitter for more film content.