A 'Colossal' Surprise: Nacho Vigalondo's latest betrays expectations in a monster-sized way
In this age of beefed-up movie marketing, it’s rare to find a movie willing to actively surprise its audience. Between trailers, teasers, teasers for trailers and Instagram videos for teasers for trailers, by the time your 21st moviegoer steps into a theatre, they generally know what to expect, in broad strokes if not in the specifics. Superhero movies: if you’ve seen one that’s come out in the last decade, you get the basic formula. Romantic comedy, horror, VFX-heavy action extravaganza: decades of movie magic have conditioned us to know pretty much how things are going to shake out by the time the credits roll, if not exactly how they’ll get there. That doesn’t mean the movies themselves are bad. But order variations on the same meal at the same restaurant for long enough, and eventually you’re going to want something different.
Enter that something different. Out today from NEON, Nacho Vigalondo’s Colossal looks, from the trailers, like a quirky dramedy with a sci-fi slant. Anne Hathaway plays Gloria, a shiftless 30-something who’s forced by unfortunate circumstances—a stalled career, a nasty break-up—to move back to her small hometown. It’s the same plight faced by any number of indie movie protagonists before her. Unlike them, Gloria awakes one afternoon to find that a monster has ravaged the city of Seoul, and that that monster is somehow an extension of her: as in, she goes to a certain place at a certain time, and up pops the monster halfway around the world, making the exact same movements Gloria does like some sort of Godzilla puppet. A confusing predicament to be in, to say the least, but luckily Gloria has the prototypical, Sweet Home Alabama-style boy next door in her corner—Oscar, played by “Saturday Night Live” alum Jason Sudeikis—to help her out.
That’s what Colossal looks like, anyways.
That’s not what it is.
Full disclosure: When I discussed Colossal with Vigalondo and producer Russell Levine, we focused on spoilery elements not revealed in the marketing, as I believe they’re interesting enough to warrant unpacking. Below are major spoilers. I would recommend seeing Colossal—and I do recommend seeing it, because it is a unique, wonderful, affecting film—knowing as little as possible, and then coming back and reading this afterwards. If you’d rather not be surprised, scroll past Anne Hathaway and let’s dive in.
A Sweet Home Alabama romance between Gloria and Oscar? Not hardly. Colossal, in addition to its sci-fi and comedy elements is, according to Vigalondo, “a horror story”—one about the harassment of women. Initially appearing considerate and gregarious, Oscar gradually reveals himself as the sort of man familiar to any woman who’s ever received a rape threat on Twitter or been doxxed by a horde of anonymous Redditors. Oscar thinks of himself as a nice guy, but really, he’s a Nice Guy, one motivated by a sick, curdling resentment towards Gloria.
“He never allows himself to ask for attention,” Vigalondo says of his villain. For example, “He bullies [Gloria] for having sex with another guy” but never outright expresses romantic interest himself. “From his point of view, he’s nice, [because] he’s not forcing her to have sex with him. He’s passive aggressive all the time.” And sensitive to perceived humiliation, a characteristic common to members of the “cucking”-obsessed alt-right to whom Oscar, in his behavior towards Gloria, has so much in common.
“When you are on the Internet, [you see] guys who are psychopaths to girls. People who are really aggressive to other people. [They] may have a normal life, but when they go on the Internet they create this mask of sadism or lack of empathy. It’s like they want to blame everyone else for their faults,” Vigalondo explains. In pondering the motivation of that type of person—having “a dialogue with the worst version of [my]self”—Vigalondo came up with Oscar: resentful, controlling, terrifying, and oh yeah, a full-on misogynist.
The character of Gloria, whose downward spiral is fueled by a love of the drink, sprung in part from a different corner of Vigalondo’s psyche. “I remember a moment when I was dealing with—I won’t say ‘alcoholism,’ because that’s a serious word, but I was getting out of control in many ways,” he reflects. “I was doing Open Windows’ post-production, and there were personal things going on in my life at the same time. And I remember saying goodbye to my coworkers and going back to the office the next day trying not to look like I’d been awake all night.”
With her drinking problem, her lack of drive and an inconsiderateness towards other that at times borders on narcissism (she asks Oscar about his mother, only to be told that she died years ago—and she’d been at the funeral), Gloria’s far from some innocent, picture-perfect woman. The literal monster she becomes seems at first to be the external manifestation of the many ways in which she can’t get her life together. But that’s a big red herring. Because Colossal’s biggest monster was never Gloria at all.
In one particularly striking scene, after Oscar’s true colors have been revealed, Gloria confronts him: “I used to think you wanted to possess me, but it’s so much simpler than that. You hate yourself. You can’t stand that your life feels so small.” The message is clear: Gloria may be a mess, but he’s the only one responsible for his behavior. Victim-blaming, a key component of rape culture the world over, gets very clearly, very intentionally thrown out the window here. Or, as producer Russell Levine puts it: “Just because you’re sloppy doesn’t mean that somebody can [abuse you].”
Though in many ways Colossal is an unrealistic movie—Levine uses the term “surreal,” which is apt—one thing Vigalondo wanted to get accurate was his approach to domestic abuse. “I won’t mention names, but I’m a little angry at some movies dealing with domestic abuse in which the guy is evil from the very beginning. He’s a monster from outer space, or a clear menace. I don’t think that’s how things work in real life,” he explains. “Actors have this cliché about everybody wanting to play a villain. [But] the kind of villain actors want to play is the flamboyant, charming, well-dressed villain. Glamorous. ‘I want to dress like him on Halloween.’ But this villain, he’s a real, true asshole. He’s the one you don’t want to be related to. It’s really bold for Jason Sudeikis to play a character you actually hate.”
To keep Colossal grounded in the real world, despite its fantastical elements, Vigalondo chose to reveal Oscar’s nature in the third act, rather than have it be obvious from the beginning. But the red flags were there. What’s interesting about Colossal is that those “red flags” are things that, in a more by-the-books movie, are “normal” romantic gestures. They’re the things that are creepy in real life, but that Hollywood has always tried to convince us are OK when a John Cusack type does them. In shining the cool, clear light of day on, say, an over-extravagant gift from someone you barely know, Colossal “betrays a romantic-comedy trope in a way that’s essential to the overall impact of the vision,” says Levine.
Vigalondo fully admits that that “betrayal”—of Gloria by Oscar, and by extension by Oscar of the audience—may alienate some viewers who expected something more straightforward. “There are some people who enjoy that the movie betrays expectations, and there are people out there who want the movie to conform to expectations. I’m not judging. Both are legitimate. To me, it’s the difference between being right-handed or left-handed… When you make a movie like this, so specific, you are not trying to appeal to everybody.”
Vigalondo—by his own admission “not competitive... I’m not one of those guys fighting for the top”—isn’t concerned for garnering across-the-board, mainstream praise for a movie that’s so unusual. (Levine is more optimistic, arguing that “it could be a four-quadrant movie. It’s just weird parts of each quadrant!”) But there is one particular group whose reactions Vigalondo had in mind while making the film: “people who are close to the things this movie is talking about,” namely domestic violence and sexism. “I have to confess, I was scared to the bone making this,” he says. “This movie’s dealing with [domestic violence and sexism], and at the same time it has a lot of jokes, a lot of VFX, a lot of fantasy elements. I was really scared about making a movie that would feel like I’m mocking survivors, or turning real-life abusers into fantasy characters. I was deeply scared of that, because those weren’t my intentions. So I’m really, really happy that the movie’s read in a good way, instead of an offense.”