Few directors call their movies "stupid," but Nacho Vigalondo, the writer and director of Colossal, throws out the word minutes into our conversation. Vigalondo, who also made the Moebius strip thriller Timecrimes, Open Windows, and Extraterrestrial, doesn't make stupid movies. Yet the story of Colossal, Vigalondo explains seriously, became "more exciting and serious and terrifying, and more stupid" as he took it beyond the boundaries of a straightforward "stomp the city" flick.
Colossal is a great film; funny, fast-paced, and surprisingly powerful when it focuses on the problems of a couple of people in this monster-plagued world. Despite being conceived some time ago, and filmed in 2015, it feels timely in an uncanny way. So let's clarify what Vigalondo means by "stupid."
This is a giant monster movie, featuring a towering beast that tramples Seoul, South Korea, and it was born of Vigalondo's desire to make this sort of movie without spending a couple hundred million bucks. "I didn't want to make a satire of those films or make a comment or criticize those films," he insists. "I wanted to find a way to make a monster movie with a low budget."
Anne Hathaway plays Gloria, a woman at a low point in life, who retreats to her old hometown to pull her life together. She has a unique epiphany, however, when she realizes the giant monster attacks on the other side of the world are connected to her problems. In short: She's the monster. Kind of.
Hathaway tells me, "What Nacho tried to achieve, and which drew me in, is that [Colossal] is dark and silly." This, she says, "is a thoughtful movie that doesn’t take itself seriously. I like that very much." She and Vigalondo agree that darkness and silliness are often "the defining characteristics of any given situation" that are shortchanged in movies.
So the real problem for Gloria isn't the monster whose movements echo hers. Her issues are a lack of self-control, and the not-entirely-kosher interest from Oscar, a childhood friend who welcomes her back to town.
The relationship with Oscar — played by Jason Sudeikis in what might be the best work of his career — does far more than the presence of monsters to give Colossal an unsettling edge. Oscar smiles big and offers help, but there's a flat stoniness in his gaze that indicates he might not be as generous as he pretends to be.
Gloria's very real, very relatable problems are all-consuming, and Vigalondo doesn't awkwardly try to turn the monster scenes into a tilted metaphor. It's very real stuff happening in the world, with Gloria's realizations doled out step by step in a way that keeps us hooked.
"So many times in movies," Hathaway says, "the focus becomes on the spectacle at the expense of the character. We couldn’t afford the spectacle this time so we didn't have any choice but to lean into the character." That makes Colossal a different sort of monster story, where "instead of watching things happen in front of your nose," as Vigalondo says, "characters are following events in the media."
It's weird — almost stupid, you might say — to call this movie "realistic," but there's something true to life about Colossal, at least, until it goes totally, wonderfully cuckoo. When studio execs try to dress up a horror movie as something more than a genre exercise, they say it's "elevated horror," and Colossal is "elevated" in its own way.
When I use that term, however, Vigalondo bristles at the phrase, and at the misconception (his word) that "elevating" something means "making it more grim, or just plain tragic." He continues, "I bring up the idea of dark and silly because that's what life is made of. Life is never completely dark, or completely silly, but you can find both every day in your life.
"For me," he elaborates, "elevating a film is just bringing it closer to reality; that's the whole thing. It's not about adding more complex semantics or making things with deeper shadows." Hey Warner Bros., you listening?
The film's relatively low budget also meant that the devastation — and make no mistake, people get hurt in this film — is personal and emotional, rather than city-sized. "I appreciate [destroying stuff] sometimes," Hathaway reflects, "but we've had so much of it that. I’m not knocking anyone, this is not by way of comparison, but I'm thrilled that we couldn't afford to destroy cities in this movie."
While Vigalondo says Colossal is meant to honor the monster movie tradition, he does want to stomp on some other film standards. This movie, he says, "is a comment on romantic comedies. We've been shown these movies since we were kids. Maybe she doesn't love you, but if you persist enough, you can win, you're going to get her. She's magically going to turn her perspective on you and see your charms. These stories say you're entitled to have the girl at the end as a trophy because — because you want her. She has no choice."
Though Gloria begins Colossal in a bad place, the film is all about giving her a choice. "She's stumbling along," Hathaway says, "as you do when you're in a struggle moment, but when it becomes real for her, she takes it really seriously." The film doesn't simplify the situation, either. "There’s room in the movie for Gloria to have mixed emotions about things she does," Hathaway explains proudly. "I love that."
Colossal's mix of monsters and emotion is unusual, but Vigalondo, Hathaway, and their conspirators achieve total escapism without sacrificing the impact of what the characters experience.
Asked about the film's oddly timely blend of genre and dissection of certain male-female relationships, Hathaway pauses. "I thought I was making a tiny 'for me' movie that four people, two of them my parents, were going to see. I thought this was going to be a creative rabbit hole movie. The fact that this is timely on some level thrills me." Then she laughs ruefully. "I wish it wasn't timely!"
But let's not get bogged down in the heavy emotional stuff. As the star exclaims, "Also, it's a monster movie!" She's right, and you're unlikely to see another movie this year where the big audience response is equally divided between monsters and closeups of an actor's expressions of horror and realization.
"You can go into the weeds with this movie," Hathaway notes, "and I'm someone who enjoys going into the weeds, so I love that." You probably know the get you a man who can do both meme, and it's perfect for Colossal. "If you just wanna see a Kaiju movie," says Hathaway, "it works as a Kaiju movie, but if you want to see a movie that holds a mirror up to aspects of our lives, this movie delivers."