“Colossal” (2016): Monster Mash with Seoul

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Image source: comingsoon.net

Considering how heavily Hollywood leans on formula at this point, films that push the parameters of innovation become joyous thrills unto themselves.

Maybe the most thrilling thing about Colossal – among many thrilling things – is how it pulls the notion of “monster movie” out of the morass of self-serious tripe like Gareth Edwards’ Godzilla and into territory that doesn’t treat “serious” as a default tone, but something organic to the story at large (ha, ha…ha).

If you want to retreat into a comatose comfort zone, then by all means, watch Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 (and try to ignore the stale-Skittles flavor of disappointment once those overcompensating credits roll).

If, however, you want to see fresh twists on shopworn conventions, to the point where creativity bursts forth in glorious and unexpected ways, find a theater showing Colossal and thank me later.

It’s a conundrum, but a consistently approachable one.

Colossal is grounded by wonderful performances from an eclectic cast, with Anne Hathaway showing both dramatic and comedic range, and Jason Sudeikis essaying a character that runs contrary to his comfort zone of smug, smarmy douchebags.

While not classified as horror on the IMDb, the film contains callbacks to “kaiju” epics, couched within a distinctive science-fiction and fantasy world (and the real world, too!). Wherein something like Edwards’ Godzilla uses monster action as a fleeting tease amid all the dull human drama, Colossal is an antidote to Hollywood’s big-budget fumbling of such tales.

But maybe I should mention that writer-director Nacho Vigalondo (who will see substantial career elevation after this) is a noteworthy genre filmmaker, whose previous works have tackled science fiction (Timecrimes), suspense-thriller (Open Windows), and horror (the V/H/S: Viral segment, “Parallel Monsters”). While some of his efforts are better than others, each is possessed of a sense of wanting to challenge tired tropes and themes, which is far more than most filmmakers even attempt these days.

In a bizarre way, Colossal is like a more accessible companion to Vigalondo’s ABCs of Death segment, “A for Apocalypse.” Both deal with scenarios that have wide-ranging consequences for humanity, but approach their respective stories from an intimate perspective, following a small group of characters and how they respond to something extraordinary.

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The men of Colossal impatiently wait for Jonny’s review to post. Image source: thinkprogress.org

In Colossal, NYC party girl Gloria (Anne Hathaway, channeling the ladies of the Reductress podcast with great skill) is booted from boyfriend Tim’s (Dan Stevens) apartment due to her rampant self-interest, laziness, and lack of consideration. As with all movies of this type, Gloria retreats back to the empty family home in Small Town, U.S.A., where she quickly re-connects with former classmate Oscar (Jason Sudeikis), and is immediately given a job at his bar.

Not too long after, a monster attacks Seoul.

Wait, what?

(I could say more, but spoilers and all that; a crucial component to the appreciation of this one is knowing as little as possible in advance.)

The fascinating thing about Colossal is how seamlessly its themes are presented. Issues of significant life changes, being resentful of an unfortunate position, and re-adjusting to unfamiliar places is both funny and deeply felt. My initial misgivings about the film falling into indie quirk were confirmed almost immediately, but Vigalondo’s rush to establish these cliches is purposeful – a bit of obligation on the path to transmuting said cliches into something endearing and unexpected.

This is a “monster” whose motives defy what we’ve grown used to based on countless Saturday-morning viewings of Godzilla vs. Gigan. Even further, the creature’s origins – as it materializes in the middle of Seoul at 8:05 every night – are as metaphysically mysterious as they are rooted in real-life emotions and insecurities. The explanation for its conception is done in a dialog-free flashback, which immediately makes it better and more compelling than reams of exposition speculating on why it’s attacking. And, as with everything else in Colossal, there is an affecting pulse underlying the most outspoken expressions and subtlest gestures – its suggestion of monsters as beings with tough exteriors masking existential doubts and moral quandaries could have come off heavy-handed and disastrous, but is instead utterly brilliant.

Jonny Numb’s Letterboxd Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Colossal is currently in limited theatrical release.

(Trailer posted as a courtesy; AVOID if you’d like to experience the movie cold. – JN)