Monday, April 17, 2017

Colossal (2016)


I think most of my readers have surmised that I take giant monsters very seriously. This is not to say that I can't laugh at them--far from it--but I tend to distrust non-fans who laugh at giant monsters.

After all, they tend to laugh at them for the wrong reasons.

For starters, let's put aside the outright racism of telling someone I love Godzilla, only for them to put on their best Mickey Rooney accent and say, "Run, it's Go-Zira!" (To paraphrase the 1998 film, "It's Gojira, you morons!") As I've opined in the past, most folks immediately react to the mention of Godzilla by mocking the "cheap" special effects and bad dubbing, which is just plain lazy. Not only does everyone make that joke, but that leaves so much more material to be mined.

And no, I don't mean the racism that people usually go for instead.

At any rate, mocking Godzilla films for being cheap because they use a guy in a rubber suit--something that has never caused anyone to mock the Alien or Predator franchises--is a great way to get on my bad side. So you can imagine my great annoyance when director Nacho Vigalondo, best known for Timecrimes, announced in 2015 that he was going to make a kaiju movie and, in his own words:
"It's going to be the cheapest Godzilla movie ever, I promise. It’s going to be a serious Godzilla movie but I’ve got an idea that’s going to make it so cheap that you will feel betrayed.”
Yes, you read that right: he called it the cheapest Godzilla movie.

You might think Vigalondo was merely using a brand name in place of an object, like saying "Kleenex" when you mean "tissue." However, that is not the case. For when it came time to shop the movie around at Cannes, with Anne Hathaway already attached, it was being sold by literally claiming Godzilla was in it! Right down to using official images from the 2014 film in press releases and, even more shamelessly, displaying a poster that featured Godzilla and Mazinger Z facing off in Tokyo!

"Damn, that's ballsy." --The Asylum
I'm sure you're shocked that Toho sued. Even though I had found the film's premise intriguing, this entire boondoggle soured me on the enterprise since it seemed like an elaborate publicity stunt with no genuine sentiment behind it.

So imagine my surprise when the film was actually completed and started getting positive buzz at the festivals. Alas, that was largely where the buzz stayed because the film did not have a wide release scheduled--not even near me, in Chicago!

Luckily, however, it finally crept into a local theater and I was able to see it. Finally, I could see if I was right to be distrustful of a cynical publicity stunt or if the positive reviews were right on the money.

We open in Seoul, South Korea about 25 years ago. A young girl and her mother are searching a park for the girl's doll when lightning comes down from the sky in a strange arc. Even stranger, this is followed by the shadowy outline of a giant horned beast standing among the nearby buildings. The girl screams in terror...

And we return to the present, as sometimes freelance writer, Gloria (Anne Hathaway) sneaks into the New York apartment she shares withe her boyfriend, Tim (Dan Stevens). She spins a long yarn to him about why she is sneaking in after seemingly being gone all night, but the end result is the same: they both know she was out drinking and partying. This is clearly a dance they've done for a while now, especially since Gloria lost her regular job recently.

Tim has had enough, though. He has packed her things and doesn't want her to be there when he gets back from work.

Well, not having any other options--since it seems her only friends are the ones who just like to party with her--Gloria moves back to her hometown. Her parents apparently still own her (gigantic) childhood house, but they no longer live there and it's empty of any furnishings. So, in an effort to settle in, she goes to buy an air mattress.

Finally, a movie that tackles the problems of attractive, inexplicably affluent white people.
Lugging the bag back home, Gloria encounters her childhood friend, Oscar (Jason Sudeikis) driving to his work. After a brief exchange about how he can't believe she's back, he offers her a ride to his place of business: the bar his dad used to run. Despite Oscar having established he has followed Gloria's social media life since she left town, Gloria is shocked to find out his father passed away--and then turns out to not even remember that she attended his mother's funeral.

At the bar, Gloria sees that Oscar has tried to make the bar his own--stripping it of the Country & Western theme his dad used. He did this to bring in more people, but it doesn't seem to have worked. Instead of giving it what he calls a "vibe", it just seems dull. In fact, about his only patrons are his friend, Garth (Tim Blake Nelson) and...okay, I don't actually know how the fuck Joel (Austin Stowell) fits into the dynamic. He seems to be much younger than the others and he's not an employee of Oscar's, but he hangs out after close with Oscar, Garth, and Gloria just the same. Maybe he's Garth's friend.

Whoever Joel is, even Gloria is shocked at how much Oscar explodes when Joel misreads her cues and tries to kiss her. Gloria had already set the boy straight, so Oscar threatening to kick his ass seems pretty excessive.

It's morning when Gloria makes her way back home, lugging her air mattress, and she cuts through a school playground on her way home. And then she promptly falls asleep after opening the air mattress, only to wake up with a stuff neck hours later and get a phone call from her sister to check the news online: a giant monster has appeared in Seoul, killed hundreds, and then mysteriously vanished into thin air.

Gloria watches multiple social media videos of the creature's rampage. The beast, which looks rather like a scrawny version of Pulgasari, fittingly enough, just strolls casually through the city in a straight line until it vanishes in a puff of electricity and smoke. Curiously, though Gloria won't make anything of it at this time, the beast is walking as though it was carrying an invisible load over its shoulder.

"Hi there! I have been expertly designed to avoid any possible lawsuits from Toho studios!"
In a state of shock at what she is seeing, Gloria calls Tim. However, he's less than helpful since he just points out that the attack happened at 8:05AM their time so it's hours in the past, before he then berates her still staying out all night partying instead of working on self-improvement. Luckily, she has an easy out from that conversation because Oscar has just mysteriously showed up with a huge TV for her.

Oscar tells her they talked about it last night, but she mysteriously does not remember. However, she isn't about to turn down a free TV even as bizarre as its appearance may be. Later that evening, Oscar's bar is packed with patrons watching the replay of the monster footage on the bar's projection TV. After mentioning the creature was sighted 25 years ago, but written off as a hoax at that time, Oscar casually points out how it always seems to work this way--seeing something this horrible happening across the world and just being glad you get to just watch it on TV.

"Really makes you think about how to solve your own problems, doesn't it?"
It's good for business, though, so Oscar is not so heartbroken when the monster appears again in the exact same place at the exact same time the next day, though the fact that nobody is injured this time allows him some extra moral distance. Oscar shows up at Gloria's house this time to tell her he offered her a job at the bar the night before after she revealed the real story of why she was back in town--which she previously avoided discussing directly--and he offered her a job at the bar. Drunk Gloria said yes to that, and hungover Gloria decides to honor that, especially when has Joel help him deliver her a futon just in time to save her from a deflated air mattress.

However, she also notices something strange about the way the monster behaves in this second appearance. At 8:05AM Gloria had been at the playground arguing with Tim over the phone, and the monster's strange gestures sure seem to resemble those she made--right down to scratching the top of its head in the way she does when she's agitated.

"Yes, I'd like to speak to my agent. I was told this would be an art film!"
Surely what Gloria thinks she saw can't be possible, so she decides to test it at 8:05AM the next morning. After mapping out the closest approximation of which parts on Seoul are represented by which sections of the playground, she stands there and makes a series of hand gestures.

Over in Seoul, the creature makes the exact same gestures.

Well, that's either a huge coincidence or she is somehow controlling a monster. So the only thing for it is to say, "Hold my beer and watch this." After another night of drinking in the bar, she has Oscar, Garth, and Joel follow her to the playground and reveals, via dancing like a goofball, that she is the monster.

Actually, that's not shocking: Korea has been subjected to the horror of dancing kaiju before.
The others are, naturally, astonished. Everyone is having a little too much fun with all of this until the Korean military starts shooting at the monster--and Gloria feels it. Well, it doesn't hurt her much, but she's drunk and starts swinging her fists wildly until she hits a helicopter and it crashes into the monster's forehead.

"Aw, man, I just polished my horns!"
When it dawns on Gloria that helicopters have pilots, she suddenly remembers that the monster killed hundreds in its initial appearance. Suddenly, making a kaiju do a silly dance in a densely populated city isn't fun any more and she panics, trying to figure out how to safely extricate herself from the playground/Seoul as Oscar tries to calm her down.

Unfortunately, she trips and falls.

When she wakes up on her futon, Oscar walks in with the newspaper. Gloria, panicked, demands to know how many she killed. Oscar is reluctant to tell her, but finally reveals that things didn't really play out the way she or anyone expected. As the newspaper headline states, the monster was not alone--and the accompanying photo reveals that it was mysteriously joined by a giant robot.

A giant robot right where Oscar was standing.

Oscar thinks it was awesome, but Gloria wants no part of this any more. Oscar knows a Korean barbecue proprietor nearby and at her request he has the man translate some phrases into hangul. This is one of the few glimpses into the horror Gloria has caused here, as she sees the proprietor and his wife holding each other while staring forlornly at a TV screen next to a sign asking for donations to help Seoul.

In monster form, Gloria carves the hangul message into the payment, apologizing for her actions and swearing it will not happen again. the world at large is astounded and begins to regard the monster as an intelligent hero of some sort.

On a whim, Gloria closes the night by going home with Joel for a one night stand. As she tries to make her escape in the morning, however, she sees that the robot has reappeared in Seoul and is gingerly walking around in order to terrorize the business district but trying not to squash anyone. Desperate to stop him, Gloria has Joel drive her to the playground. When Oscar, jealous and mad with power, refuses to leave she walks onto the playground and slaps him before ordering him out of the area.

In Seoul, this means the monster orders the robot away and everyone hails the kaiju as a hero and starts making memes of the slap. Oscar, however, laughs a little too much at the memes. He also suddenly turns cruel, ordering Gloria around more than necessary and mocking Garth for being a recovering junkie. When Gloria refuses to have a beer, since she has sworn off alcohol on account of the danger she represents when drunk, Oscar gets even angrier.

Not only does he drive home drunk--which Joel does nothing to stop--but he returns to the playground. A scuffle ensues between him and Gloria, but despite Oscar eventually giving up and going home--to the cheers of nearby people watching on their TVs.

They won't be cheering for long, however, Oscar has accepted that he's the villain and he also knows that that role carries a lot of power. More importantly, it carries power over Gloria. Oscar knows she will do whatever he wants, because if she doesn't a giant robot is going to kill hundred and maybe thousands of innocent people...

"I had this horrible nightmare: I was hosting the Oscars and my co-host was so stoned I had to carry the whole show!"
There's one thing I have to address right off the bat: my half-Korean fiancee went to see this movie with me and as the credits rolled and we exited the theater, she made it clear in no uncertain terms that she hated it. It isn't hard to see why that is, if you've been paying attention to my synopsis. Notice how many named characters I mentioned who are Korean.

That's right, I didn't mention any.

This is a film about well-off white people having problems that need the horrific deaths of multiple faceless people of color in order to improve themselves. There is exactly one speaking role for a Korean person in the film after the prologue and she's a bartender who is just there to immediately start to talk to our heroine about her problems instead of the devastation her city has suffered up to that point.

Oh, yes, did I mention this is the kind of movie where the supposedly broke main character can easily book a flight to Seoul? Between that and the gigantic house she spends most of the movie in, Anne Hathaway has to work overtime to make the audience care about Gloria's plight.

Well, until Oscar really shows his true colors, of course. But we'll get to that.

So, yes, there is no question this movie has a core concept that is based on some seriously racist concepts. I could get past that a lot easier if the film had something to say about that, but the film pays only the slightest lip service to that. Hell, when it's eventually revealed why the monster and robot have to be attacking Seoul instead of London or Seattle, it just goes to show there's not really a good reason at all. Maybe if Gloria was a Korean-American woman, this film would have had much more to say.

That said, I did not hate this movie. In fact, I liked it quite a bit.

Don't get me wrong, this movie is very flawed. Beyond the inadvertent racism and hilariously mistaken idea of what "broke" looks like, it has some serious story issues. For one thing, Joel adds nothing to the story beyond the effect his relationship with Gloria has on Oscar, and yet the film gives us a moment with him at the end that was utterly unnecessary. Nobody gives a shit about Joel!

Second, it's a magical realism story that feels the need to "explain" the source of its magic--and that explanation is entirely unnecessary and adds nothing beyond revealing that Oscar was always a bitter asshole.

That's especially frustrating because of what the movie does so right with Oscar. Oscar doesn't wear a fedora and we almost never see him near a computer, but he is unquestionably the sort of guy who would whine on a message board about how life has been so unfair to him because he's such a nice guy. He clearly feels he deserves Gloria, and when we see the hoarded mess that is his home it's not shocking to see he still has pictures of his ex around with her face scratched out.

The kind of entitlement and desire for power isn't born just from being a hateful person or self-loathing. That's simplifying it far too much, when Oscar feels so real in all other aspects. Jason Sudeikis is not an actor I would have expected to be a convincing and disturbing villain, but he very much is and I suspect any woman who has dealt with an abusive male partner or friend will see his heel turn coming the moment he brings Gloria that first gift of the TV.

He's so horrible I'm sure there's already a Reddit thread of GamerGaters declaring him the hero.
Oscar isn't a cartoon villain: he's a very real threat that way too many women, men, and intersex individuals will face at some point in their lives. Having him appear in a movie with a dancing kaiju just emphasizes his threat all the more.

As for Gloria, Anne Hathaway is also really great. That's not very surprising, since I've loved Hathaway as an actress for a long while, but she really nails the awkward dance this role calls for her to perform, and I don't just mean on the playground. Hathaway is a goofy fuck-up one minute and the horrifyingly tragic face of a trapped woman. She manages to sell watching a grown man stomping on wood mulch in front of her as the deaths of hundreds that she is helpless to stop.

I suppose one could argue White Feminism and Toxic Masculinity are the real monsters in this movie, but I'm not sure the filmmakers realized they were showcasing the former.

And that brings us to the monster action. If you loved the hilarious cut-away from Godzilla roaring at the male MUTO to the hero's son watching it on TV, as I did, then you're in luck: that's basically this entire movie! When Nacho Vigalondo promised the film would be "so cheap that you will feel betrayed," it turns out he didn't mean that he was going to do a super cheap monster suit and deliberately bad miniatures.

And all the Death Kappa fans are crushed.
No, he meant he was going to make a monster movie that wasn't about the monster at all. People who whined that Godzilla didn't have enough screen time in the 2014 film are not going to be super pleased with this film. Most of the shots we get of the giant monster and the robot are rendered pretty well--though honestly I wish Vigalondo had had the guts to follow through on the man in a suit promise--but the giant beasts are mainly seen through various smaller screens and we certainly never see the entirety of their rampages.

And if you're going to this movie because I told you that a monster and a robot fight more than once, well, I hope you like that slap because that is all that we see of the monster vs. robot fights. The rest of it is just Hathaway and Sudeikis on the playground, with the sound effects of destruction added over it. It's an effective gimmick--even if it renders the faceless victims even more faceless--but Pacific Rim it ain't.

Then again, that isn't really the point, is it? This is about the characters, not the monsters. And whatever else can be said about this film, it delivers on the characters.

Except for Joel. Fuck Joel.

He even manages to have to stupidest jacket in this picture. Fucking Joel.
On the whole, while it's a rather unique take on the giant monster genre, it's far from original as many critics would love to declare it to be. Applying toxic masculinity to the formula is pretty novel in its own right, but I'm pretty sure "ordinary person finds themselves unwittingly controlling a kaiju" is an entire subgenre of Ultraman episodes alone.

Calling it an "Instant Classic" is also quite a stretch. I think this is a good movie that I enjoyed quite a bit--I particularly liked the ending punchline, I have to say--but I've already seen much better genre fare this year alone in films like Get Out and Kong: Skull Island.

Bottom line, if this ends up showing near you, it's worth a look. I can't see it having much rewatch value, but I'm glad I saw it once. Considering the positive buzz it's getting, ui suspect most fo my readers would feel the same way.

Though I certainly wouldn't recommend pre-ordering that signed Blu-ray that comes with a statue of the monster, unless you just really want that statue.

To be fair, it is a sweet statue.

3 comments:

  1. I haven't seen the movie yet but it looks good to me. As weekend is approaching I need to plan it with my friends. Thank you for making life easy for me to decide what to watch this weekend

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  2. I hope that statue isn't based on how Hathaway looks naked.

    ReplyDelete