More than romantic comedy, more than kaiju homage or cautionary tale, Colossal is a vehicle for debate, a film designed to ignite discussion and perhaps even a little introspection.
In other words, the takeaway for Colossal — a film starring Anne Hathaway about a boy and a girl, and a city-sized monster rampaging through Seoul, South Korea — is the takeaway, actually the many takeaways, it will spur.
At least that's what director Nacho Vigalondo told me in a phone interview earlier this week.
He gets, he says, that this movie won’t be for everyone. That’s really not what’s important to him. What he wants out of this film is discussion, not necessarily initial critical praise.
It’s discussion that helps make a film feel lasting, unforgettable even, he says.
For the first half of the movie, Colossal is a boy-meets-girl sort of story, with a couple of extra layers added on for good measure.
Gloria, played by Hathaway, is a complete mess. She’s jobless, adrift in the up-all-night heavy drinking party scene of New York. When her boyfriend confronts her and tosses her out of his place, it becomes clear she’s not just a drinker, she’s an alcoholic. With nowhere to turn, Gloria is forced to move back home.
Returning to her hometown, Gloria quickly runs into childhood friend Oscar, played by Jason Sudeikis, who happens to run a bar and offers her a job.
No sooner is the movie delving into the complex relationships of Gloria, Oscar and his two buddies, than it introduces one of the chief surprising elements of the story: a massive monster.
Gloria wakes after a night of drinking to news that this Godzilla-like creature has rampaged through Seoul. Soon she discovers her personal plight is somehow directly connected to the creature’s appearance.
Even as the audience slowly comes to grips with this out-of-left-field facet of the story, the entire movie takes a major tonal shift, becoming something darker, tragic even. Emotional torment quickly becomes physical, all without missing a giant monster stride.
The movie stomps its way to a fittingly monstrous conclusion, managing to deliver on the premise of the film but somehow not worry over the minutiae of things like character development or minor plot points.
Where that would pull down most movies, this lack of focus only helps to make the final experience all the more powerful and personal.
And ultimately, that’s the power of the story: It seems to draw out from each viewer their own perspective, allowing everyone to see the film through the lens of their own experiences.
When I watched it at a screening during South by Southwest, I saw it as an examination of codependency, something I struggled with as a teen. Others see it delving into the impact of addiction. Or alcoholism. Or feminism.
After the screening, one audience member rose to ask Vigalondo a question, her voice wavering, cracking with emotion. How was he able to so perfectly capture the feeling of being trapped in an abusive relationship?
It’s Vigalondo’s almost impressionistic approach to filmmaking that allows this, that empowers so many to see so many different things in this film. His work captures the motion of human emotion played out across powerful moments drifting in a solution of surreal placelessness.
Maybe the film is so powerful because, despite the big monster, it’s so personal.
It seems that in creating Colossal, Vigalondo poured from a cocktail of personal fears and inspirations.
“There was a point in my life where I felt like Gloria, where I felt lost in my life,” he told the audience at the screening. “I am from a little town in northern Spain. For me, going back to that little town from Madrid represents failure.”
So on some level, the opening conceit of the film is a study of what Vigalondo thinks might happen to himself if he were to fail.
“What if I failed and was not able to make films,” he said, “and I had to go back to this town, and instead of having fun I’m frustrated and angry and feel entitled in all of the wrong ways?”
The nuance of the film and its relationships were what helped Vigalondo finally focus on creating Colossal, but the movie’s origin was giant, city-stomping monsters.
“I wrote it as a way to try the monster movie thing without needing a big budget,” he told me in a recent phone interview. “I was like, ‘How can I make a monster movie with a low budget without making something that tries to be ironic or satire?’ I wanted to make something that was honest.”
He had this premise — this idea of giant monsters that are the actualized avatars of people on the other side of the world — for years. But he didn’t have the time to devote to turn it into a film. He also knew it was missing something.
He needed a bit of time to allow his brain to sort through the ideas and add something to turn it from a concept into something bigger, something fitting for the big screen.
“That something else came years later,” he said. “It wasn’t until I found the main character.”
But even then, the concept felt like it was missing something.
“Originally, the physical confrontation had the two guys,” he said. “But it felt like I was making a story by the numbers. The monsters were original, but everything else felt like it didn’t live up to the promise.”
It wasn’t until he decided to tweak the plot and have Gloria and Oscar get into a fight that things seemed to come together.
“Once you have a female character and you know story is about physical violence, then suddenly the stakes are higher,” he said. “She’s not a spy. She’s not a fighter. She is an average woman and she is going to have to fight with someone else.
“And then when you get the reason she’s fighting, it becomes something else.”
There’s a moment when the film, already skating on the edge of the bizarre, takes a deep dive from lighthearted into uncomfortable, violent and, surprisingly, almost too real.
It’s a sudden tonal shift that risks leaving audiences confused, annoyed or just behind.
Vigalondo says that jarring tonal shift was a natural, essential part of the story’s progression.
You need time in the film to set up the story and the characters and explain what's going on with that giant monster.
“Then these things happen,” he said. “One things leads to the next one and you realize the film is asking for a tonal shift in the middle.”
That second half defies the rules of filmmaking, Vigalondo admits.
“The second half should be the consequences of what was told in the first half,” he said. “In this case, the movie is asking for something different. Why did the character betray the movie itself? The character is betraying the other characters. It’s also betraying you in the audience.
“I understand that when you create a film this way, you are playing a risky game because you are not making the audience feel at home. All of the pieces don’t fall together in the common way.”
Love it, hate it; just debate it
“That’s what happens sometimes when you are writing things,” Vigalondo says. “You know in advance these are the decisions some people will love and some people will hate.”
That schism is the thing that will likely cause someone to love or hate the movie. But really, Vigalondo says he’s more interested in the sort of discussions his film can generate.
And a discussion seems to be what’s growing, building behind the long festival road trips and numerous screenings.
In Canada, Spain, Texas; at Sundance and SXSW, the overall response seems to be positive, Vigalondo says. But he says he can “smell a discussion growing.”
“This is not a good feeling,” he said. “You can feel a discussion, that people are divided, which is equally exciting.”
In his mind, for a movie to be remembered, to be a part of film canon, it shouldn’t be praised — instead, it should generate a discussion.
Critics panned The Shining when it came out, he points out, but now it’s revered, and more importantly, it has generated copious amounts of commentary.
“We remember so many movies that aren’t universally praised,” he said. “But the ones that are praised vanish from our memory. Movies like Dances With Wolves. Everyone praised that, but now, I don’t know … it’s like they became part of the background.”
For all of the different takes on his movie, one can assume that Vigalondo had his own reasons for writing it and shooting it they way he did. But he won’t tell me what they were.
“I don’t think the filmmaker should be the keyholder of the film,” he says. “When you make a movie that wants to talk to the audience, what’s interesting is hearing the audience talk about it rather than me.
“I don’t think a maker should discuss the film like it was a puzzle that they can tell you the solution to.”
Of the theories floated about the deeper meanings of the film is one that Vigalondo seems to like: that the movie is a deliberate tearing down and reinvention of the romantic comedy. That the film takes all of the tropes found in a romcom and deliberately dismantles them, sometimes even using them to play with the audience’s expectations.
Was that the point, I ask Vigalondo?
“It is one of the things I am really aware of,” he said.
As our time runs down, Vigalondo, who says he is exhausted and sounds it, tells me he’s excited to go see the premiere in Los Angeles tonight.
“I hope people like it,” he says and then pauses. “Sometimes making a movie makes you into Jekyll and Hyde.
“Of course you want people to confront and discuss the movie, but sometimes you want people to laugh at the screen. Sometimes I just want people to enjoy the film in a plain way. And just have created a little film.”