Monsters, Robots, "Nice" Guys, Oh My! in Vigalondo's Colossal
There's two types of villains. Both hurt others because of their self destructive tendencies, but one type intentionally injures people. Villains are always egomaniacs, but some can learn to change their ways. Unfortunately, it tends to take actually ruining lives or mistakenly killing somebody for them to learn their lesson. Others see what their destruction is doing and in turn use the situation as leverage against the world they already blame for their own faults. How better to tell this tale than with a movie about getting blackout drunk, and giant Godzilla-esque monsters attacking Seoul? Er, no, really. Colossal (2017) manages to dress up a genuine societal terror as a monster and robot story in order to make the medicine go down – in that way, it taps into what superhero comics were initially about.
We meet Gloria (Anne Hathaway) as she’s being kicked out of her boyfriend’s New York apartment for being a blackout drunk with no job or motivation. Despite the fact that she’s still drunk when this happens, the whole situation comes as a surprise to her. She ends up moving back to her suburban hometown, where she runs into childhood friend Oscar (Jason Sudeikis) who offers her friendship, a television, furniture, a job at his bar, and free drinks. Gloria begins to settle into a comfortable routine of drinking until daylight with Oscar and his friends, until one day she wakes up to the news that a kaiju has attacked Seoul, South Korea.
After watching footage of the monster, it begins to dawn on Gloria that there is some link between her and it. She comes to realize that when she’s passing through a playground at a specific time in the morning, the monster will appear in Seoul. After proving to Oscar and his friends that she is linked to the monster, Oscar finds out that his presence in the park also seems to manifest a giant mecha in Seoul at the same time. After mistakenly wiping out part of the city by tripping on the playground, Gloria decides to just avoid the park so as not to cause any more destruction.
However, after a night of blacking out and sleeping with one of Oscar’s friends, and the sudden appearance of her ex-boyfriend, Oscar’s disposition suddenly changes. His niceties turn sinister, and he begins to claim ownership over Gloria. Citing both all he’s given her and the secret of her connection with the monster, he blackmails her into staying in town. If she attempts to leave he threatens that he will go to the playground and stomp around, killing thousands of people in Seoul. Gloria finds herself trapped between sacrificing her autonomy to a physically abusive and controlling man, and her desire to protect thousands of innocent lives.
I was pleasantly surprised by Colossal. At its core it truly is a superhero movie; it has an origin story, it sets up a main adversary, it threatens the lives of millions of people via supernatural forces, and then has the main protagonist swoop in to save the day. The first twist on this genre, however, is that it’s a story about two villains with no real good guys. The second twist is that it’s not so much about the monsters as it is about battling something much more insidious: abuse. It’s a refreshing break from our current trend of cookie-cutter superhero movies that set up easy outs to unrealistic danger, and politely skirt the subjects of actual justice, honor, or bravery. That’s not to say that Colossal is perfect, it certainly has a bizarre plotline that, at worst, can come across as hokey. Yet, Jason Sudeikis and Anne Hathaway deliver genuinely excellent performances that seamlessly go from silly to unsettling, and it's that cold snap in the middle of the film that truly gripped me.
Finally, a superhero movie with a realistically creepy villain! None of this clown shit or animal-named men in top hats, Colossal sets up a villain who is truly a scourge to society: the "Nice" Guy. Abusive relationships never start out abusive. Like Oscar, they give you just enough gifts and compliments to build up a benefit of the doubt that quickly turns into something they lord over you. Why would your kind, giving partner knowingly hurt you? Well, as Colossal points out so directly, it’s because they hate themselves, they're miserable and quite frankly they think it's your fault. That’s the definition of evil. Oscar is evil. He only gives so that he can take away, and he blames literally everybody but himself for his own decisions. Worse yet, he’s surrounded by friends who look the other way when he does evil shit, either because they are also being blackmailed by him or because they’re too cowardly to cross him.
Gloria, on the other hand, is a fuck-up. She’s not a bad person, per se, but she’s certainly a bad partner. She’s selfish, she lacks a general sense of awareness and she’s unmotivated to fix any of it. She, too, hates herself, but instead of lashing out at the world she internalizes her hatred by drinking. Only once she realizes that her chosen form of self-punishment is spilling over and hurting other people does she start to wake up to it. Unfortunately, this realization happens only after she literally kills people by accident (which to me seems an overt metaphor for drunk driving). Gloria is certainly a villain, but unlike Oscar she acknowledges it.
There is something to be said about telling this tale in the form of monsters and robots. While this movie wasn’t exactly for kids, we need more abuse education awareness in our media and certainly in a form that’s digestible for the widest range of viewers. Had this just been a straight relationship drama it might have come across as both anecdotal and joyless. Yet portraying Gloria as a superhero battling both an abusive man and fighting to save the lives of an entire city worth of people, creates a larger narrative. Gloria is flawed, she’s not a blameless or innocent person, but even so she is both undeserving of abuse, and capable of greater good. When Gloria blocks Oscar from stepping on the playground and destroying a city on the other side of the world, she becomes a symbol of standing up for the hundreds of thousands of faceless people who are abused everyday. In that way, Colossal really showcases the best of its sci-fi superhero genre.