Generally speaking, giant monster movies aren’t all that scary. They tend to be about the spectacle of skyscraper-sized kaiju stomping their way through some Asian or American city, causing enormous collateral damage as they either destroy the military or duke it out with some other monster. Sometimes, kaiju movies will defy the genre a bit and tell the story from the point of view of one of those screaming people running around while their neighborhood is destroyed. And once in a while, a movie comes along that takes the kaiju concept and steers it into such unknown territory that by the time it’s over, you’re not sure what you bargained for when you started watching, but it certainly wasn’t what you ended up getting. And in this category is where we find Colossal, one of the most unexpected monster movies of recent years, one totally worth discovering, but also one perhaps best seen cold.
The story begins in Manhattan, where Gloria, an unemployed alcoholic writer parties one time too many for her boyfriend Tim, who throws her out. Looking for a place to regroup, she moves back to her sleepy hometown in New Hampshire, where she moves into the old family home and reunites with Oscar, a childhood friend who runs his late father’s bar. Oscar gives Gloria a job, but hanging out at the bar is probably the worst thing for her as she spends every night getting hammered with Oscar and his friends. Things turn sideways when one morning, after Gloria has slept it off on a park bench, she walks through the park at 8:05 in the morning and a giant reptilian kaiju appears at that exact same moment in Seoul, South Korea, mimicking Gloria’s actions. Once she realizes if she enters this park at this time she’ll conjure the monster and control it from afar, life gets pretty interesting. But then Oscar decides to enter the park with her, and when a giant robot also appears in Seoul, the relationship between he and Gloria plays out between the two monsters as well. As the world tries to figure out what exactly is going on in Seoul, Gloria and Oscar are focused on a much more intimate puzzle: how it is they came to be connected to these colossi, and in their strange way, to each other. Soon we find out that while this movie might be about giant creatures halfway around the world, sometimes the biggest monsters are the ones hiding in plain sight before us.
This is a hard movie to wrap one’s head around because it begins as a kind of downbeat romantic comedy that ticks all the right boxes for a Hollywood potboiler: flawed but glamorous girl from the city comes home to get her groove back, the boy she left behind is waiting for her, life in this old town is somehow more in line with her true self than what she sought in the big metropolis, etc. But once the kaiju come into play, it’s like another movie literally walked into this one, and suddenly, we’re just as confused as Gloria is. But that’s where the real story gets going. There is some humorous confusion around figuring out what to do with these strange powers of kaiju control that are oddly connected to such a specific time and place. But the more the story goes on, the more this becomes a character study about people who live small lives in a small town and learn to hate themselves for it. Hatred of that kind can come out in strange ways, indeed.
Much of the movie’s strength rests on the backs of its principal actors, Anne Hathaway as Gloria, and Jason Sudeikis as Oscar. Both bring a kind of hangdog depth to their roles as people who imagined far bigger and better things for themselves, but never quite lived up to those dreams. When they learn that they can control the fate of an entire city, when they are literally commanding the world’s attention, when they can pilot giant monsters the size of gods, you’d think it would make them both feel like the towering immortals they control. But instead, they feel smaller and more helpless than ever for reasons that run deeper than either Gloria or Oscar at first might understand. Hathaway brings a bruised vulnerability as someone who tried to escape her past only to be dragged back to it, while Sudeikis brings a toxic sort of masculine insecurity to a role that spends most of its time as the reliable friendzoned-but-maybe-boyfriend until he is no longer willing to wait for what he feels is coming to him. That is when his true character begins to show, and Gloria learns that not every monster lives in Seoul.
There are a few different moments of truth in Colossal. When Oscar learns that Gloria hooked up with somebody else in town instead of him, he goes into a kind of manipulative tantrum that reveals his dudebro sidekicks to be just another set of abuse victims he keeps close so he has somebody handy to kick when he feels the need. When Gloria’s ex comes to town to check up on her, Oscar sets off a massive firework in the middle of his bar just to prove that no matter how bullying and out of control he gets, Gloria will always stick around for it. And he’s right…until the final moment of truth, when Gloria does leave town, but not for the reasons we might at first believe, and only so she can end her conflict with Oscar on final terms. There comes a point when Gloria has Oscar beaten, and even still, all he can do is rage at her through a fog of his own self-hatred. Some people, you just can’t reach, and so you must throw them away. Far, far away.