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Colossal is a surprisingly mature film about addiction, toxic friends, and big ol' monsters

Anne Hathaway stars as a burned out alcoholic who might also be flattening buildings halfway around the world.

Anne Hathaway in Colossal
Anne Hathaway in Colossal
Alissa Wilkinson covers film and culture for Vox. Alissa is a member of the New York Film Critics Circle and the National Society of Film Critics.

Colossal doesn’t want to meet expectations.

The new film actively defies categorization. Sometimes it’s a romantic comedy; sometimes it’s something much darker. And sometimes — quite unexpectedly — it’s a monster movie, with actual, city-flattening monsters. All of those components mashed together make for an oddly entertaining, refreshingly original movie.

But it’s not just entertaining: Colossal is about how complicated addiction can be, and about the ways our relationships and our histories can make healing messy. Sometimes, the people we think are our friends turn out to be monsters.

And sometimes, we’re the monster.

Colossal tells the story of a young woman who has to move back home and the people who never left. Also, monsters?

Gloria (a terrific Anne Hathaway) lives a glamorously fast-paced life in New York City, where she writes for a website and lives with her boyfriend, Tim (Dan Stevens). But Tim, tired of seeing Gloria stumble in after yet another night of drinking, kicks her out of the apartment. Without anywhere else to go, she moves into her parents’ vacant house in the ‘burbs. (The house is so vacant that it doesn’t even have furniture, her parents having moved south without renting the place out.)

Jason Sudeikis and Anne Hathaway in Colossal
Jason Sudeikis and Anne Hathaway in Colossal.

Gloria feels like she’s hit rock bottom, but on the way home from buying a crappy air mattress at the local store, she sees Oscar (Jason Sudeikis), a childhood friend who never left town. He now owns the bar his father once owned, and has tried to upgrade the interior from country-western kitsch to twinkly-light class.

But he ran out of money before he could finish the renovation, and so every night after closing, Oscar and his buddies Joel (Austin Stowell) and Garth (Tim Blake Nelson) slip into the still-cowboy-themed back room, drink till dawn, and shoot the shit. Not having anything better to do, Gloria joins them, and wakes up the next morning on a park bench. She watches as a group of children head off to school, then goes home and passes out.

When Gloria awakes, something very strange has happened. The news is abuzz over the appearance of a giant, Godzilla-like monster that’s appeared in Seoul, South Korea, flattening buildings and terrifying the masses. Gloria feels really weird about it, and tells Oscar, but she’s not sure why.

Eventually Oscar offers Gloria a job at the bar, and she starts spending every night there with the gang, drinking way past closing and sometimes stumbling through the park on the way home. Meanwhile, the monster keeps appearing in Seoul, and then, one day, a giant robot does, too.

Anne Hathaway in Colossal
Anne Hathaway in Colossal.

Slowly — and in a way that the film doesn’t really care to explain — Gloria realizes that the monster in Seoul is, somehow, her. The realization scares her, because it means that her actions suddenly have much bigger consequences; she’s no longer just ruining her own life, but potentially the lives of many others.

But as she tries to clean up her act, Oscar grows strangely cold, and even cruel. And in the meantime, Tim starts calling again. Gloria begins to suspect that the new life she’s constructed for herself is just as much of a trap as the old one. And the monster still reappears over Seoul every day.

Colossal borrows from kaiju tradition, which makes perfect sense for the story it tells

Directed by Nacho Vigalondo (Timecrimes), Colossal feels calculated to irritate audiences who insist on tidy explanations and clean finishes. It’s funny and mature, with great performances from Hathaway and Sudeikis as a pair of lost screw-ups and, especially, Nelson, who plays a former addict caught in a rut he’s trying to escape. But the movie also has more in common with the loose, sometimes dreamlike whimsicality of Michel Gondry than a straight-up monster tale or comedy/drama about grown-up problems. Anyone looking for an explanation of the movie’s distinctive plot quirk will be frustrated in the attempt.

That’s because to tell Gloria’s tale, Vigalondo draws on imagery from kaiju films — the Japanese genre in which huge monsters attack big cities and fight battles. Godzilla is the most well-known of kaiju monsters, and also helps illustrate Colossal’s genius in borrowing from the genre.

Depending on who’s making the movie, Godzilla has been painted as a hero, or a villain, or just a neutral force of nature with no moral motivation that happens to sweep through a city. That’s characteristic of the whole kaiju genre: Though you might expect the monsters to be always bent on human destruction, they’re often neutral or even complex. There’s no one way to be a kaiju.

Jason Sudeikis in Colossal
Jason Sudeikis in Colossal.

Bringing that history into the story Colossal tells about addiction and complicated relationships is a smart move. The movie starts out looking like a deceptively simple tale: girl has lousy boyfriend, moves home, and falls in love with the guy next door, who helps her learn a lesson about being content with the simple things.

But, twist! The guy from home is actually miserable with home. Rather than being in puppy-dog love with her since they were kids, he’s madly jealous of her and her life, and he’s secretly pleased by her impact on hitting rock bottom. His own life hit a dead end long ago, and rather than trying to work around it, he actively sabotages people who are trying to get their own lives on track. But he’s just as confused as she is. He might be a villain, or he might just be a force of nature.

You could say, then, that Colossal is about everyday monsters, and the big ones on TV attacking Seoul are just an expressionist way to help us feel the helplessness that Gloria experiences when she recognizes how her own out-of-control habits make her do things that hurt others, if on a smaller scale.

Colossal is a surprisingly mature way to get at some really dark issues — addiction, unhealthy relationships, self-sabotage — that purposely blunts its subject matter with a weird, seemingly nonsensical plot device. The result is delightful: While Colossal draws from a few familiar genres, it weaves them together and makes something totally new, and unexpectedly thoughtful. It’s part metaphor, part reality, and just strange enough to keep us on our toes.

Colossal opens in theaters on April 7.

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