‘Colossal’ Review: A Monster Movie With Miniature Appeal

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'Colossal' is out in theaters April 7. NEON

Colossal is like that friend whose media center has been kludged together from an old laptop, daisy-chained adapters and a handful of thumb drives stuffed with pirated movies — a media center that your friend keeps insisting is just as good as a Roku, even in the second hour of trying to get Face/Off to play right and without Korean subtitles as your beer buzz decays into premature hangover. Colossal keeps insisting it’s a kaiju movie, that it’s found a way around all of those expensive things we like about kaiju movies, that this is a new, better path. It says, sweetly, that a half-assed, entitled millennial-ish dramedy enhances , even as you’re looking at all the duct tape and jury-rigged narrative patches. Like your metaphorical friend, Colossal wants to show you a good time, but is too much of a consummate bullshitter to be honest with you.

Colossal opens with Gloria (Anne Hathaway) coming home after a long night of partying, upsetting her asshole boyfriend, Tim (Dan Stevens), who boots her out of their yuppie New York loft. Gloria returns to her hometown and soon takes up with childhood friend Oscar (Jason Sudeikis) and his posse of drunks. Gloria has that wonderful version of alcoholism where she seems dead sober all the time, suffers no ill effects ever, but conspicuously forgets everything the morning after. She is struggling to find her feet again, but all the signifiers of that struggle are airy and empty of drama, such as her ongoing tussle with an inflatable mattress. Her life is a mess in that particular movie way that deserved to be left behind in the last decade with Garden State.

Hollywood movies have always had a spotty track record with ennui — maybe there’s something just a little hard to believe in stories starring beautiful people, told by successful people, accurately capturing malaise and the endless, petty indignities of working class or white collar life. But Colossal is particularly inept at this, which is unfortunate since Gloria’s path to self-fulfillment is meant to be the emotional foundation of the movie’s other, more monsterful, half.

This is the main plot, which is both literal and the metaphoric backing to Gloria’s emotional narrative: Whenever Gloria walks through a playground at a certain time a giant monster mirrors her on the other side of the world, in Seoul, South Korea.

Purely as a monster movie, there’s very little to enjoy in Colossal. Most of the destruction in Seoul is seen via televisions and computer screens, mediating every thrill. Imagine watching snippets from Godzilla over someone’s shoulder. Whether for budgetary reasons or in an effort to bring us closer to the characters, Colossal always prefers impactful moments from Gloria’s perspective. And while imagination is a wonderful thing, it’s not very fun watching feet stomp around on mulch when we could be watching cars and people get squished.

Let’s accept that Colossal isn’t meant to satisfy on traditional kaiju or disaster movie vectors. What then does Colossal accomplish with this story?

Since there is no known mechanism for manifesting a monster from across the world, part of Colossal is about probing the origin of this peculiar event and why it only seems to work for Gloria and one other person. Here Colossal is at its absolute worst. We’re cued in early on that the monsters in Seoul have something to do with Gloria and Oscar’s childhood. This is relayed through flashbacks, but it’s not really like unravelling a mystery. Instead, Colossal has you waiting for the eventual reveal, priming it enough that you’re lead to expect a revelation.

Here’s what you get instead: “lightning did it.”

It seriously amounts to “lightning did it.” The explanation for the kaiju’s form and why it’s attacking Seoul might as well be placeholder explanations, left in the script because no one ever went back to see the “think of something good later” note. Something this stupid doesn’t deserve the label spoiler: the monster is “attacking” Seoul because Gloria made a Seoul diorama in elementary school and got struck by lightning.  

So if the giant monster action isn’t very good and the explanation is nonsense, does Colossal at least plumb the concept for unexpected new insights into humanity? Here Colossal comes closest to justifying itself. Once Gloria and the audience understand the basic parameters, Colossal has some room to explore. This leads down some fun avenues, including the way we narratize world events. Soon, everyone in the world is rooting for one monster over the other and cheers can be heard in suburban neighborhoods around the country. And, of course, social media gets in on the game (though it’s peculiar that there seems to be only one viral video).

Most effectively, Colossal gets into questions of absolute power. When Gloria’s nemesis realizes he can essentially hold Gloria emotionally hostage, threatening thousands of lives in Seoul to get what he wants in Podunk, Colossal finds its core, becoming a simplistic but coherent metaphor for toxic relationships. But even this is impaired by Colossal ’s desire to crowd-please on the cheap. Rather than diving deeper into the poisonous emotional landscape between Gloria and Oscar, Colossal dodges, setting up a bizarre metaphor involving a giant firecracker. Props, like the endless parade of free furniture brought to Gloria’s house, come to replace any honest insight.

Ultimately, Colossal fulfills the emotional equation laid out for Gloria. She takes control of the monster in a new way, embracing her own power and destroying the people who think it’s their place to control her destiny. The giant monster and her own life come to parallel resolutions, playing out the metaphor to a sensible close. But this accomplishment feels more dutiful than enjoyable. The equation may balance, but all the elements — the giant monster, the robot, the destruction — become ticks on a checklist, rather than enjoyable on their own. Colossal thinks it’s found a clever way to make an emotionally resonant monster movie, personalizing one of our largest and least individual storytelling subgenres. Instead Colossal cancels itself out, chaining both spectacle and its characters to a concept too inflexible for either.

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