Going into Colossal with only the film's trailers and promotional material to prepare you, it's easy to expect an entertaining but fairly shallow handling of its premise, in which a hard-partying alcoholic (Anne Hathaway) is kicked out by her boyfriend and returns to her home town to wallow and hang out at a bar with her childhood friend (Jason Sudeikis), before discovering that she mysteriously has control over a giant monster that has begun menacing Seoul. Despite the weirdness of that description's final turn, there's something very familiar about that combination--a melding of mumblecore character drama and out-there genre elements, along the lines of The One I Love. So while you might expect Colossal to be good, you also expect its genre components to be merely a jumping-off point, a particularly on-the-nose metaphor--alcohol makes our heroine, Gloria, into a literal monster! (There is, in addition, an uncomfortable undertone to this premise, in which a white woman's obliviousness causes mass deaths in an Asian city on the other side of the planet.) And yet, in the hands of writer-director Nacho Vigalondo, Colossal turns out to be something much smarter and more exciting, doing things that not many movies, in and out of genre, are doing. It is, on the one hand, a hair-raising portrait of abuse and how a person might unwittingly slip into a relationship with an abuser, and on the other hand, a fresh and thoughtful twist on the superhero origin story.
The early scenes of Colossal, in which Gloria finally exhausts the patience of her circle in New York, moves back home, reunites with Sudeikis's Oscar, starts working at his bar, and begins to realize that she and the monster in Seoul are connected, are doing a lot of ground-laying work. It's therefore easy to miss the early danger signs in Gloria and Oscar's relationship, especially as the film seeds them so subtly. Oscar's social circle, into which he immediately folds Gloria, at first seems like the typical indie film collection of losers and sad-sacks--Tim Blake Nelson as drug-addled conspiracy nut Garth, and Austin Stowell as introverted Joel, whose attractiveness is outweighed by his lack of confidence around Gloria. But when Oscar explodes in rage the first night that the group spend together--ostensibly in defense of Gloria--we begin to get a sense of the reality of the group's dynamics, in which Oscar, in the guise of the genial grown-up friend, exerts an unhealthy amount of control on people too weak to break away from him.
The same dynamic quickly begins to ensnare Gloria. After her first night drinking with him and his friends, Oscar arrives at her house to inform the hung-over Gloria that she agreed to let him lend her a TV, and to start working at the bar. Because Gloria is such a trainwreck, it's easy to believe that she might have had these conversations without remembering them. But the next morning, when Oscar arrives with a sofa and makes a similar claim, his behavior seems more suspicious. We spent most of the previous evening with him and Gloria, and a sofa never came up. It suddenly becomes obvious that both this and the previous morning's claim were lies, that Oscar is gaslighting Gloria, supposedly for her own good but really as a way of insinuating himself into her life and home. By the time his behavior turns sinister, later in the movie, he's already so embedded in her routine that shaking him off requires genuine effort and carries meaningful costs.
Throughout all this, there's the monster. It's difficult to explain how deftly Colossal weaves this gonzo element into the dynamic of slowly-growing menace that permeates Gloria and Oscar's interactions, but it quickly grows into an expression, not just of Gloria's own dysfunction, but of the baleful influence that Oscar has on her. When she realizes the rules of her connection to the monster--it appears when she walks onto a certain playground near her house, at a certain time of day--Gloria tries to exercise responsibility. Her first attempts fail miserably. While trying to show Oscar and the guys her connection, she panics at the news that Korean authorities are shooting missiles at "her", trips, and falls, causing massive destruction (there's really not enough that can be said for Vigalondo's ability to make a drunk woman falling down in a playground look like an earth-shattering catastrophe). But the more Gloria tries to act like a responsible person--including trying to stop drinking--the angrier Oscar gets, and the more he tries to push her into going back into monster mode.
The metaphor--an addict trying to straighten out while their resentful friends who are still using attack and sabotage them--is blatant. Almost any other film might have stopped there. But Colossal moves into the realm of all-out genre storytelling when it reveals that Oscar, too, has an analogue in Seoul, in his case a giant robot. (There is, ultimately, an explanation for both Oscar and Gloria's conditions, and it mostly hangs together. But it also isn't entirely necessary--no amount of backstory will make this movie's premise any less ridiculous, and it's the execution that makes it work, not whether the script can come up with a sufficiently convincing McGuffin.) This places him in a position to threaten Gloria. If she doesn't do as he says--stay in town, continue working at his bar and hanging out with his friends, start drinking again--he will deliberately trash the city. This sets up an obvious monster-movie situation--the scenes beamed in from Seoul, in which the monster and the robot grapple against a backdrop of skyscraper and a soundtrack of screams, are almost prototypical of this genre. But it also sets up a hellish scenario of abusive blackmail that reminded me a great deal of Jessica Jones, as does Gloria's self-destructive personality. (Indeed, the choice to cast Sudeikis, an indie-film stalwart who often plays mopey but good-hearted love interests, as an abusive villain feels as deliberate as Jessica Jones's choice to cast fandom's beloved David Tennant as Kilgrave.) With the added turn of the screw that, unlike Jessica, Gloria doesn't have super-strength. In their human guises, Oscar is bigger and stronger than her, and she has no ability to force him to stop.
When I say that Colossal reads like a superhero origin story, what I mean is not just that it ends up pitting Gloria and Oscar (and their gigantic analogues) against each other in a classic punch-up pose. But that its premise forces its characters to confront what lies at the heart of heroism and villainy. What makes Gloria a hero--or at least temporarily heroic--is the fact that she takes responsibility for her actions, finally realizing that she can't blithely go about her self-destruction, smashing into people and things without any concern for the damage she causes. What makes Oscar a villain is the fact that he's so steeped in self-loathing that he doesn't even want to get better anymore, and is content to drag everyone around him down to his own level. Telling this sort of story with, on the one hand, city-scale stakes, and on the other hand, no actual superpowers, means that the focus remains strictly on the emotional. Gloria triumphs not just because she outsmarts Oscar, but because she refuses to give into despair, even in the face of a seemingly inescapable trap.
Colossal finds a way for Gloria to escape that trap--one that is conceptually elegant, but whose execution is perhaps a little sloppy, leaning a little too much into the profound satisfaction of seeing Oscar get his comeuppance. What's more important, however, is what happens afterwards. Flush with triumph and awash with relief, Gloria walks the streets of the city and then turns into.. a bar. It's clear from the film's closing moments that she didn't even realize what she was doing, that the choice was practically automatic. Which is perhaps the cleverest thing Colossal does with the superhero story. Just because Gloria saved the world doesn't make her a hero, and her continuing to be one--or even just a functional human being--depends on constantly making the choice not to sink back into bad habits, even when the fate of a South Korean metropolis doesn't hang in the balance. It's left to us to hope that the lessons Gloria has learned will help her going forward, but the film's open ending is reminder that she still has it in her to be a monster, this time of the more scary human variety.