Colossal Was a Funny and Thoughtful Look at Alcoholism. Also, There was a Kaiju.
The real monster is addiction. And Jason Sudeikis.
When the King of the Monsters first shambled forth onto land, it didn’t simply rain down fire onto Japan — it brought with it a titanic shift in science-fiction storytelling. The release of Godzilla in 1954 began the age of kaiju, a genre defined by the evocative visual power of massive supernatural behemoths. Of course, stories of fearsome beasts predate movies, and perhaps more important than the folk monsters themselves was what they represented.
Nearly 70 years after Godzilla’s debut, kaiju have become an international phenomenon, but one where mainstream productions often cast aside the symbolism in favor of brand recognition and simple spectacle. That’s why it was so heartbreaking when, in the shadow of Shin Godzilla and Kong: Skull Island, a small miracle of originality bombed at the box office. A tragic victim of underexposure and under-marketing, Nacho Vigalondo’s Colossal is a supreme step forward for kaiju films, an original and bizarre concept that once again tethers the genre to pathos by telling a frank story about addiction amid larger-than-life antics.
You wouldn’t know it at first glance, but Gloria (Anne Hathaway) is an alcoholic. After straining her relationship with ex-boyfriend Tim (Dan Stevens) through her volatile antics, Gloria can’t fathom why Tim is kicking her out of his apartment, but that’s what’s so exceptional about Hathaway’s performance. Gloria has been unconsciously excusing her behavior for so long that she radiates the facade of someone who’s well put together, and it’s hard to recognize the mere existence of a problem when you’ve trained yourself not to. Her self-defensive snark and reflexive tendency to shift blame are perfect buffers for her behavior, but it’s not until she’s forced to move back to her New Hampshire hometown that she comes face-to-face with the reality of her vices.
One of Colossal’s best elements is the quiet strength of its ensemble. When Gloria reconnects with her childhood friend Oscar (Jason Sudeikis), he introduces her to his friends Joel (Austin Stowell) and Garth (Tim Blake Nelson), and gets her a job at the bar he owns. At first, there’s a gleeful juvenile energy to how they play off each other, quickly becoming fast friends comfortable pissing away their time over warm beers and aimless conversation. But as anyone who’s ever struggled with addiction can tell you, there’s no easier way to absolve yourself of responsibility than by surrounding yourself with people willing to enable and indulge your vices under the guise of friendship. They might not be doing it on purpose, but with every free beer, Gloria is slipping further and further into the grip of the uncertainty created by her alcoholism.
There’s a lot of thematic nuance to Vigalondo’s script, but there wouldn’t really be a script without the centerpiece tying it all together: a massive reptilian kaiju that appears out of thin air and starts wreaking havoc in Seoul. The writer and director of 2007’s horrifically underappreciated Timecrimes, Vigalondo is no stranger to earnest sci-fi storytelling, leaning fully into the genre’s tropes and archetypes to repackage them. His love for Toho’s original Godzilla movies oozes out of the screen when the unnamed kaiju shows up, humongous and devastating but surprisingly aloof and gangling.
Most people wouldn’t think Anne Hathaway and kaiju features would be such a natural pairing, but the eventual reveal that Gloria is somehow psychically controlling the monster is the movie’s secret weapon. It’s impossible to understate how well she juggles the inherent humor and horror of the premise; in fact, it’s those elements that drew her to the project. The 2010s represented an artistic crossroads for Hathaway, and Colossal was precisely the surreal and bewildering script she had been looking for.
While the idea of a self-destructive New Hampshire 30-something controlling a giant monster in South Korea is amusing, what Colossal does exceptionally well is present the situational horror of what’s happening in Seoul against the way American media trivializes international tragedy. As citizens are evacuated and the military prepares for catastrophic environmental destruction, Oscar’s bar patrons watch clips of the incident like a highlight reel on ESPN. It’s a subtle storytelling quirk that never becomes a focus, but it still speaks to the callousness of the 24-hour media cycle.
Although the movie’s hook is undoubtedly the gigantic monster, Vigolando’s whip-smart script makes you question who exactly that is. As Gloria figures out the extent of her powers, we simultaneously watch Oscar sink into the throes of his own alcoholism, spurred on by deep-seated insecurity and a lifetime of resentment at a world that didn’t hand him more. It’s a role that requires some genuine malice and gendered spite, and it’s against type for Mr. Ted Lasso himself. Both Sudekis and Vigolando find the nuance in Oscar without absolving him of his descent into villainy, and by the time we reach the movie’s climax, it’s clear the monster in Seoul represents something different for both of them.
For Oscar, it’s a bitter testament to a kind of cosmic importance he’ll never have, a truth that consumes him with rage. But for Gloria, her kaiju isn’t a divine force of cosmic will but a physical representation of the consequences of her drinking, and it forces her to confront her demons head-on. Like the best installments of the genre, Colossal recognizes that its giant monster isn’t there just to be thrown into a WWE cage match. It’s a sobering reflection of the volatility that Gloria’s alcoholism brings out in her, brilliantly adding personal stakes and symbolic allegory back to a genre that’s become caught up in the perpetual spectacle of citywide destruction.
Colossal is streaming on HBO Max until March 31.
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