Colossal is a strange, ultimately affecting comedy that keeps evolving what it’s actually about. It goes one direction, only to reverse course entirely. That writer and director Nacho Vigalondo does this multiple times—without losing control of his narrative—is a minor cinematic miracle. The only way that Vigalondo can pull this off is with a strong cast. All the major characters have more depth than they initially appear to. Its high-concept premise may not have much allegorical meaning, but there is unflinching, dogged specificity that elevates Colossal above its chosen genre.
A little girl is out with her mother in Seoul, South Korea, and she stumbles upon a frightening sight: a gigantic, inexplicable monster. Vigalondo then flashes the title card, and turns his attention to Gloria (Anne Hathaway), only offering occasional hints about how she relates to the little girl. Gloria is an unemployed alcoholic, and her boyfriend Tim (Dan Stevens) kicks her out of their New York apartment. Humiliated and resentful, Gloria returns to her hometown where she stumbles upon her old friend Oscar (Jason Sudeikis). Oscar takes pity on Gloria, doing her favors and driving her around—he even gives her a job working tables at the bar he owns.
Up until this point, Colossal unfolds like a typical indie comedy, the sort of thing that wins audience awards at the Sundance Film Festival. Hathaway is fearless, never apologizing for Gloria, and there are shades of her character from Rachel Getting Married. Something strange happens though: A monster starts to terrorize Seoul, and the entire world notices. Gloria is too drunk to remember the details of the monster, except she eventually learns she has a strange connection to it. If she stands on a certain patch of land at a certain time of day, the monster mirrors her movements. So if she does a vulgar dance on that spot, so will the monster. It gets weirder from there.
Colossal does not dawdle on the particulars of the premise and instead lets the characters react to it in a natural way. There is no life-lesson for Gloria to learn. Colossal is more ambitious that, albeit in a lateral way, since the monster unintentionally reveals the secrets of Gloria and her friends. She is not just a fuck-up: She is a sensitive, intuitive person who internalizes her newfound responsibility. The film does have a conflict, with life-and-death stakes alongside an unlikely antagonist. The villain in Colossal is a monster—the figurative kind—who abuses power with frightening abandon.
There is a protracted, tense scene before the final act where said villain shows its true colors. It’s a powerful monologue, the sort of thing we might expect from Quentin Tarantino, but all the more frightening since all the characters originally seemed so ordinary. The shrewd editing also helps elevate the film’s suspense: Vigalondo ably cuts between Seoul and suburban America, so we see the impact of Gloria’s every movement on a massive scale. There have been many recent films with giant monsters fighting each other, and Colossal is better than most because it runs in the opposite direction of grand spectacle. The stakes are more intimate, in a way, so they are also more acutely felt.
On top of its bizarre concept, Colossal succeeds through an attention to detail. When Gloria is hungover and fakes her way through remembering what happened the night before, Hathaway plays it with the right mix of relief and embarrassment. There is an important seduction scene midway through the movie, and the way it unspools—affecting the characters differently—is a great example of how resentment can infect a circle of friends. Throughout it all is Vigalando, whose bizarre instincts result in a satisfying whole. His film is the announcement of a major talent, so producers should continue giving him the freedom and resources to do whatever he wants.
Colossal opens Friday at Landmark’s E Street Cinema.