Talk about flipping the script! “Colossal” is a subversive, wildly ambitious groundbreaker among giant-creature features. It ditches every classic trope and screenwriting rule from Asian “kaiju” films, telling the tale with a quirky voice all its own. It turns the monster movie genre into something darkly witty, weirdly modern, simultaneously sincere and screwball absurd.
Don’t worry, traditionalists. There are dazzling sequences of a skyscraper-tall, roughly humanoid wild thing battling a massive robot foe as Seoul’s street crowds look on aghast. But there’s much, much more going on here than a Godzilla vs. Optimus Prime smack-down. This film’s technically impressive beasts are stomping entirely fresh ground.
The focus goes to star turns by Oscar winner Anne Hathaway and “Saturday Night Live” veteran Jason Sudeikis, both in excellent form and great together. We meet Hathaway’s character, Gloria, a not entirely unsympathetic antiheroine, half a world away from South Korea and facing calamities of her own. Despite her forced grin, her aspirations as a writer have tanked, her bank account is empty and her off-the-rails drinking has banished her from her boyfriend’s Manhattan apartment.
Moving back into her parents’ empty old New Hampshire house, Gloria is warmly remembered by her childhood classmate, Oscar (Sudeikis). Her recollection of him is fuzzy, probably due to her pickled synapses and self-absorbed narcissism. She sees him as a minor acquaintance. But he’s pleased enough by her return to refurbish her house with his family’s unused furniture, trail her like a benign stalker and hire her as a waitress in his tavern. Gloria isn’t thrilled in his company, but he’s amusing, and even if he is paying her just a minimum-wage salary, it comes with access to the liquor cabinet.
Spanish writer-director Nacho Vigalondo navigates his story across surprising territory without ever wandering aimlessly or going haywire. The movie, steering away from the rocks of cliche, unfolds as a well-made indie comedy, pulling us into romantic entanglements between deeply flawed, relatable human beings. Hathaway plays the outspoken black sheep like she was born to it, and Sudeikis captures microscopic moments of emotional pain like a pro.
Meanwhile there is in a background role a big, building-busting thing clumsily clumping around Seoul. The townies at the bar (including one played in standout form by Tim Blake Nelson) debate what it all means as they watch videos of the colossus appearing like magic and vaporizing like mist. Gloria scratches her head, a gestural tic that she shares with someone else we’ve seen in the film. Somebody much taller. Who may be the world’s biggest metaphor. And who deepens the bond between Oscar and Gloria in the worst way imaginable in personal terms, as well as massive Seoul real estate damage.
Stepping into a popular sandbox, Vigalondo has built us one of the wildest make-believe castles you’ve ever seen. He turns the standard-issue monster movie into a tone-shifting meta-narrative, a funny and heartbreaking character study presented with ace special effects. The deep subject of “Colossal” is what misunderstood creatures we are and what destructive monsters we can become. It’s an amazing experience.