‘Colossal’ uses kaiju showdown as backdrop for social commentary

"Colossal" | Neon Grade: A-
Neon/Courtesy
"Colossal" | Neon
Grade: A-

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Between Godzilla, Mothra and whichever beast ate Ron Perlman in “Pacific Rim,” we’ve seen all manner of kaiju brought to life on the big screen. The one thing we haven’t seen but always wanted? A dancing kaiju, as featured in writer-director Nacho Vigalondo’s “Colossal.” The novelty of a massive monster shaking its hips smack dab in the middle of downtown Seoul, South Korea, certainly isn’t all “Colossal” has to offer though. It includes smart social commentary, which elevates the film to a realm of relevance that all kaiju flicks should aspire to.

When we first meet Gloria (Anne Hathaway), she drinks too much, which doesn’t alleviate her joblessness, and her boyfriend, Tim (Dan Stevens), is a domineering schmuck whose contemptibility never ceases to amaze. He condescends to Gloria’s drinking problem, and their relationship is anything but ideal.

When Tim dumps Gloria, she moves back to her quiet hometown. Her childhood friend, Oscar (Jason Sudeikis), offers a beacon of hope as she tries to leave her alcoholism, and the men who would manipulate it, behind her. As if Gloria didn’t have enough on her plate, a gargantuan monster mysteriously arrives in Seoul, and to her astonishment, she realizes that she can control its movements.

Cue the dancing kaiju, which is the result of Vigalondo’s thorough exploration of his unique premise. Anything that could happen when a person controls a monster happens, for better or for worse (keep in mind that Gloria was drunk while controlling the monster on one occasion). His stretching of the premise reaches its peak in the finale, an imaginative showdown that will feel emotionally satisfying and should be lauded for its clever setup.

Vigalondo also takes advantage of the premise’s potential for humor. Audiences are familiar with Hathaway and Sudeikis’ comedic timing, and veteran character actor Tim Blake Nelson (“Holes,” anyone?) only makes funny people funnier. Their banter in Oscar’s bar offers moments of levity, and Gloria’s struggle to start over in her hometown is sometimes played for laughs.  

Pain can often be at the heart of comedy though, and each of these three actors demonstrate a considerable amount of it. The film isn’t afraid to get serious with its frank take on Gloria’s alcoholism and, in the case of characters such as Tim, the deep-seated obsessions that can make monsters of us all. The human characters of “Colossal” have depth, something that recent kaiju films have lacked.

Like all the best monster films — 1954’s “Godzilla” comes to mind — “Colossal” uses its premise and genre-trappings to establish striking social commentary. When the monster appears in Seoul, the people in Gloria’s hometown react with appropriate horror, but such sentiment soon turns into blasé passivity as a monster appearance that could kill hundreds becomes a regular occurrence. Pretty soon, Gloria’s beast appears in a “Deal With It” meme, as pixelated sunglasses descend onto its eyes. Worse yet, people raucously cheer when a kaiju showdown actually happens, as if it were some demented sporting event. The world of “Colossal” is eerily similar to our own, where our screens let us become inured spectators to global atrocities.

This sense of inurement drives the film’s stakes, and we care about the collateral damage that Gloria accidentally causes when her drunken movements lead the monster to level a skyscraper. The film suggests that our investment in the South Koreans’ survival should go without saying — that the city-leveling third acts of many modern blockbusters shouldn’t be the norm. As a result, “Colossal” almost leads us to wish for a battle-less climax, something that feels counterintuitive in a kaiju film but makes it unique among the “Pacific Rims” of the world.

Ultimately, “Colossal” is the type of movie we need more of, the kind that answers the common gripe about a lack of original movies. It takes a well-known genre and subverts our expectations in surprising ways. Sure, a couple characters get lost in the shuffle, and one or two more jokes wouldn’t have hurt, but “Colossal” is a film with boldness and originality that make nitpicks seem inconsequential.

“Colossal” opens at California Theatres on April 20.

Harrison Tunggal covers film. Contact him at [email protected].