In Seoul, an enormous kaiju keeps appearing out of thin air to wreak havoc on the city. Meanwhile, in America, a thirtysomething fuck-up (Anne Hathaway) is hitting rock bottom. It seems unlikely, but could the two somehow be connected?
Monster movies are all about chaos, confusion and disorder — sirens blaring as beasties with calves the size of skyscrapers kick in city blocks. But very rarely do they feel truly dangerous. Enter Spanish maverick Nacho Vigalondo. His work to date has taken the form of a bunch of spiky, low-budget genre pieces that defy categorisation. His cracking debut, 2007’s Timecrimes, was a mind-twisting time-travel thriller shot for the price of a DeLorean tyre. 2011’s Extraterrestrial was a romantic farce with bonus spaceship. And now there’s Colossal, a highly original concoction that plays out like a cross between Sundance-friendly indie drama and schlocky B pic. Smartly deploying a smattering of effects work — the budget came in at just $15 million — it has the freedom to go where it wants. And boy, does it go to some weird places.
The rarest of monster flicks: one in which the humans are the most interesting bit.
The heroine is Anne Hathaway’s Gloria, a downward-spiralling party girl not a million miles from Hathaway’s character in Rachel Getting Married. Dumped by her boyfriend (a slightly wasted Dan Stevens), she heads back to the small town where she grew up. There, things start to get peculiar. After nights where she’s gotten black-out drunk, Gloria wakes up to find images on the TV news of a giant, praying-mantis-like monster on the rampage in South Korea. That’s worrying on its own. But what really freaks her out is the realisation that she shares something with the monster: a nervous tic of scratching the top of her head.
And that’s where we’ll stop — it’s best to go in knowing no more than that, but suffice to say there are more mind-bending twists in store. While it may seem at first like Vigalondo has merely smashed together two disparate types of film at random — Pacific Rim meets Winter’s Bone — in fact he’s found an ingenious way to explore such weighty themes as abusive relationships, empathy and addiction. And while it has plenty of funny moments, by the third act it’s warped into something as dark as it is gripping.
This is aided by two strong central performances, from Hathaway and Jason Sudeikis. She’s better than she has been in years, by turns likeable and maddening, working a dramatic character arc that feels plausible rather than contrived. But the most impressive work comes from Sudeikis, an actor who has too often coasted along in affable-slacker roles. Here, he gleefully subverts expectations, starting off in his familiar mode but gradually becoming something very different. It might be career-best stuff, particularly in a drawn-out scene involving firecrackers that gradually ramps up in intensity.
In a summer dominated by movies designed to set up other movies, it’s refreshing to have one that’s so clearly a one-off. There is zero chance of the creature in Colossal battling Godzilla or King Kong, which is a good thing. It’s the rarest of monster flicks: one in which the humans are the most interesting bit.
Made on a budget that would just about cover Kong’s left bicep, Colossal is cool, smart filmmaking, with plot developments that will be talked about for a long time to come.