Nacho Vigalondo has a knack for making movies that feel simultaneously apiece of their attendant genres while flush with mordant, if not schizoid, self-awareness. So it goes with Colossal, which stars Anne Hathaway as Gloria, an alcoholic writer who somehow finds herself telepathically linked to a scaly monster on the other side of the world, laying waste to Seoul and killing hundreds of innocents during one blacked-out evening.
Gloria has relocated to her tiny hometown after bottoming out in her posh New York life (SoHo apartment, Brit boyfriend, infinite chances to screw up), putting her childhood friend, Oscar (Jason Sudeikis), in position to help her get things back in order again—and, predictably, make good on his unconsummated lifelong crush. After she’s shared her secret with him, he steps onto the same patch of earth (an innocuous playground) and finds himself controlling a towering kaiju right beside her. For much of Colossal’s runtime, the symbolism is irresistible: Vigalondo archly deploys a bogus premise to interrogate alcoholism and entitlement, making the monster and robot into stand-ins for the long post-9/11 hangover of the American id.
Wracked with guilt over the mass slaughters, Gloria manages to take control of the monster, even kneeling down to scrawl an apology in the South Korean ground. But Oscar—increasingly possessive after providing her a job at his bar, only to see her hook up with one of his best friends—begins to use the threat of a giant robot attack to keep Gloria in line, while the rest of the world can only react hysterically to the towering duo’s every appearance.
Audiences who step into Colossal unaware of where Nacho Vigalondo is taking them will be nothing if not surprised.
This is where Colossal jackknifes from a high-concept goofy comedy into a higher-concept psychodrama, Hathaway blending callousness and vulnerability against Sudeikis’s curdled nice-guy instability. There’s something admirable about the way Vigalondo’s screenplay plunges head-first into this murk: Oscar’s bitterness about the way his life has turned out is a legitimately unsettling switch from Colossal’s prior nudge-nudging, even if less canny viewers will inevitably wonder why Gloria didn’t just stay away from the park after figuring out the cause of the monster’s first freak appearance.
Despite its feminist topicality and estimable star power and production value, the film is stuck on Hollywood’s outside looking in: The South Korea set pieces allow Vigalondo to send up the steroidal tent-pole aesthetic with which Colossal would, presumably, be competing in wide release. (That the screaming, running South Korean masses are but a backdrop for Gloria’s self-rehabilitation is one of the less-considered aspects about the screenplay, yet still nothing compared to the casual racism of Michael Bay or Roland Emmerich’s visions of apocalypse.) When the film’s whirligig plotline goes off-rail in the heady final act, Oscar and Gloria’s origin story bends over backward to justify a magical-realist conceit that was a lot more fun without explanation. Audiences who step into Colossal unaware of where Vigalondo is taking them will be nothing if not surprised. But despite, or perhaps because of, these refreshing quirks of character, the film probably assumes more patience of its audience than it can possibly reward.
The Toronto International Film Festival runs from September 8–18.