The premise of “Colossal” would be hilarious even if it didn’t work so well: Hard-drinking Gloria (Anne Hathaway) gets dumped by her boyfriend after one too many rough nights out; in a funk, she returns to her hometown and discovers that her movements in a small park control a giant kaiju monster in Seoul with the ability to steamroll an entire city. (Read it again if you must.) When Gloria moves her arms, a huge reptilian beast follows suit; she stomps around in the wood chips, she crushes skyscrapers. And she’s not the only the local to discover this power. A hilarious monster movie in miniature, “Colossal” wrestles its absurd premise into a clever and frequently hilarious riff on moody young adults trapped by their insecurities. Needless to say, there’s a lot more happening on the human level here than anything found in “Pacific Rim.”
The peculiar genre-twisting set-up for “Colossal” should come as no surprise to anyone familiar with the work of Spanish director Nacho Vigalondo, whose brilliant “Timecrimes” delivered one of the best time travel plots of all time, with only a handful of characters orbiting an increasingly convoluted timeline; similarly, Vigalondo’s “Extraterrestrial” turned an alien invasion story into a minimalist romcom between a handful of survivors holed up in their apartment. “Colossal” features a few bigger names and some decent special effects, but it’s otherwise consistent with this inventive director’s anarchic approach, which dares to blur the lines between silliness and genuine behavior.
When Gloria first arrives home, she’s confronted by old childhood acquaintance Oscar (Jason Sudeikis), a grinning alcoholic who runs the grimy local pub. Though Oscar and his drinking pals (Tim Blake Nelson and Austin Stowell) welcome another member of their crew, Gloria drifts in and out of the picture, regularly crashing in the neighborhood park. When she wakes up one day to find that a giant beast ran blindly through Seoul, she starts to get suspicious; a few tests later and she’s horrified. But “Colossal” really kicks into high gear once Gloria invites Oscar and company into her strange secret, and discovers that at least one of them shows up in Seoul alongside her mammoth beast…as a giant robot. When the robot wreaks havoc just to pass the time, Gloria decides to take a stand. The stage is set for an epic kaiju showdown — or a brawl between drunken losers in a sleepy town, take your pick. “Colossal” has it both ways.
Vigalondo’s a storyteller for whom gimmicky concepts come more naturally than complex behavior, and his script falls short of deepening the relationship between these desperate characters. Oscar, who initially tries to provide Gloria with the support she’s missing in her life, takes a hard-right turn into mean-spirited lunatic somewhere near the third act that doesn’t add up. This is certainly the strangest project in Sudeikis’ career to date, and while it’s nice to see him expand his range beyond more traditional studio comedies, his broad style never quite syncs with the story’s odd tonal shifts between comedy, drama and suspense. His friends remain largely underdeveloped, and an abrupt revelation surrounding Tim Blake Nelson’s character only highlights the strangeness of a veteran actor in a small movie having so little to do.
Fortunately, “Colossal” mainly belongs to its leading lady and her evolving ability to take control of a baffling problem. Vigalondo makes a concerted effort to present Gloria’s troubled lifestyle in authentic terms. On one level, this is the story of a troubled woman hoping to shut herself off from the outside world with vices and shade. With a good half hour of setup before the ridiculous twist arrives, the movie provides a terrific showcase for Hathaway, who gives her fiercest performance since “Rachel Getting Married.” (Hathaway has said she’d love to play Catwoman again, but this is a far more original way to watch her kick some ass.) By the end, she’s a bruised and bloodied survivor, whose intensity says a lot more about her need to break free of the men in her life and clean up her act than any given monster battle could express on its own terms. “Colossal” really shines when Vigalondo hits on unique ways of combing the more pedestrian aspects of the plot with the fantastical. There aren’t many movies that can get away with a throwaway line like, “I killed a shitload of people because I was acting like a drunk idiot again.”
But that’s the peculiar conundrum that Gloria must face, and when “Colossal” gives her that opportunity, the payoff arrives. Vigalondo’s economical use of CGI manages to give it extra layers of meanings in spite of the bizarre events unfolding onscreen. The movie presents its plot like a ridiculous gamble, and keeps pulling it off, somehow managing to justify its existence. As she stumbles through problems both silly and serious, that’s the struggle Gloria faces as well.
“Colossal” premiered at the 2016 Toronto International Film Festival. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.