I’ve spoken a number of times before in this blog about how metaphor can be used to enhance a message and make an average idea for a film into something much better. Lights Out, my favorite horror film of last year, was a metaphor for dealing with a loved one who has a serious mental illness. Sausage Party was a not so subtle metaphor for how religion affects our world’s cultures. Colossal is another metaphor film, one which I enjoyed even more than the two I just mentioned, but it manages to take metaphor to a level I’ve never seen before, and is a bit hard to describe, but the best way I can think of to put it is that by placing a metaphor side by side with a real life experience it uses the metaphor to describe the plot in a way that meshes and enriches two story lines which on their own would be mundane.
The summary of Colossal on imdb.com is simply “A woman discovers that severe catastrophic events are somehow connected to the mental breakdown from which she’s suffering.” Part of me wants to say that it’s best that I just tell you this movie is definitely one to see, trust me, and leave it at that because the nature of the “severe catastrophic events” and the “mental breakdown” are so imaginative and surprising that I think the best way to experience this film is blind. Being allowed to discover what is really happening in Colossal along with the main characters would be a movie going experience you would remember for the rest of your life, but that wouldn’t make for much of a review on my part, and the trailers already give away what the movie’s main conceit is, though they don’t give away anywhere near as much as it would seem they do. So, my personal recommendation is to stop reading right here, go see Colossal, then come back to finish the review. If you want to continue reading, though, then I promise I won’t give away much more than what the trailers already do.
Anne Hathaway plays Gloria. Gloria had success early when she managed to get a writing job in New York allowing her to escape her life in small town Northeast America (I believe the small town is in New Hampshire, but I could be remembering incorrectly). When the film opens, Gloria has lost her job due to her constant drunken partying, and her boyfriend Tim (Dan Stevens) is kicking her out of his apartment for the same reason, telling her she needs to get her life together. With nowhere left to go but the small town she once escaed from, Gloria returns to her now empty childhood home and is reunited with Oscar (Jason Sudeikis) a boy, now man, she knew as a young girl who inherited the local bar from his parents. Reuniting with a bar owner who obviously has a crush on her allows Gloria to resume her party girl ways, but when halfway across the world a giant monster materializes out of thin air to attack Soeul, South Korea, Gloria’s life gets a bit of a shock when she realizes the actions of the monster hold more than just a coincidental parallel to her own out of control drunken exploits.
The metaphor and the themes at the core of Colossal are ones of control. It’s a film that talks about how dangerous it is to lose control of our lives, dangerous both to ourselves and to those around us (and even to those halfway around the world) whether that loss of control be due to alack of self control or due to others trying to take control of our lives away from us. The metaphor that Gloria becomes a rampaging monster after a night of drunken partying is an apt, if incredibly on the nose, metaphor, and if left at that the movie would be cute, well done, and thoughtful if ultimately light, but the movie only starts there and takes the themes to places you would never expect from the light tone of the movie’s start and from its marketing campaign.
Those places can get very dark, indeed. The tonal changes throughout the film are essential to its success, and the fact that they are handled as deftly as they are shows that Nacho Vigalando has the potential to one day be a director of legendary reputation. It’s important that we are sympathetic to Gloria despite her crippling flaws, so we begin with a light, practically comic tone. But, it is also important that we are ultimately shown just how dangerous the life Gloria and Oscar are living can be, so as the film goes on the tone gradually goes darker and darker until we reach a point where it’s uncomfortable to watch the events unfolding before us, giving the metaphors their power and allowing us to see that while they started as a silly conceit, the silliness is concealing hard to confront wisdom which we now are face to face with despite ourselves.
Hathaway and Sudeikis are the two who truly anchor Colossal, as both the plot and the themes of the film revolve entirely on the relationship between these two, and they anchor it incredibly well. Both of their performances express the deep nuances of emotion required to get across the film’s message, and both perfectly navigate the tonal shifts of the film giving us characters that we are simultaneously sympathetic with and horrified at and for. We start out laughing at them, but in the end realize that this is no joke, and through that we can see a mirror pointed directly at ourselves and our own experiences.
Colossal‘s major weakness is in its secondary characters. While Tim Blake Nelson, Austin Stowell, and Dan Stevens all perform their roles admirably, they just are not given anything to work with. There is no time given in the script to developing the people who surround Gloria and Oscar in the story, and these three are ultimately not really characters so much as plot devices. We don’t get any sense that these three have lives or aspirations of their own, but exist only so Gloria and Oscar have something to react to. This isn’t that uncommon a trend to find in fiction, but in a story that’s otherwise done so incredibly well, this flaw does stand out.
The visuals of Colossal are handled nearly as deftly as the themes and the acting. It’s obvious that Colossal didn’t have the largest of budgets, especially for a film with a giant rampaging monster as a focus, but Vigalondo not only did as well a job as anyone could ever expect, the script also foresaw that the film might not receive a large bankroll in its backing and actually wrote in a plausible (well, as plausible as can be) reason why the giant monster wrecking Soeul may not look entirely realistic. The camera work is also well done, and together with the film’s remarkable editing handles the story which takes place at multiple locations simultaneously perfectly without the audience ever needing to stop just experiencing the movie to concentrate on figuring out what is going on. The excellent focus, cutting, and splicing mean that the spell is never broken and our immersion in the story is never put in jeopardy.
I couldn’t end this review without also mentioning the unusual company, Legion M, which handled the distribution of Colossal. Legion M is an entirely fan owned company begun in 2016 by founders Paul Scanlan and Jeff Annison which looks to give movie fans a larger say in which films ultimately get produced. While Legion M did not produce Colossal, they did take over the movie’s distribution after Colossal had a few showings on the festival circuit to make sure that Colossal got the wider audience they felt it deserved. Legion M is still a fledgling company, but is certainly one to keep an eye on due to its quick rise in popularity and its innovative method of managing its business dealings. They are currently holding a second round of investment funding as I write this review, so if you’re interested in making an investment in a fledgling movie company head on over their website and give them a look.
Shaun’s final verdict: Colossal is not a flawless movie, but its flaws are few, far between, and ultimately not that important. It not only gives us an apt and entertaining metaphor, its beyond “on the nose” presentation of that metaphor is truly innovative. The movie’s constant shifts in tone are necessary, and in lesser hands could have been a disaster, but Hathaway, Sudeikis, and Vigalando navigate them perfectly giving us an experience that feels amazingly true to life despite, and really because of, its fantastic conceits. Colossal is at once funny, dark, moving, inspirational, intelligent, and the best giant monster movie to come along since the original Gojira (Godzilla). It is an absolute must see, and a true feather in the cap for all who brought this film to life.