What can a movie about a giant monster attacking a major Asian city teach us about misogyny? Go to Hulu and stream the overlooked Nacho Vigalondo film Colossal, featuring a powerful and nuanced performance by lead actress Anne Hathaway, to find out.
Why? For some very good, very timely reasons, which are totally spoilery, so stop here if you don’t want the movie ruined for you.
When I first watched Colossal, I approached it with the attitude of a life-long geek. The premise was simple and seemed primed for hilarity: a Godzilla-sized beast suddenly appears in Seoul, South Korea, seemingly out of nowhere. And Hathaway’s character seems to be controlling its every move. Watching the news coverage of this unprecedented happening, she begins to realize: when she lifts her arm, the kaiju raises its arm. When she takes a step, it takes a step. Funny premise, right? “Ha ha,” I thought, “how clever.” A plain-Jane gal-next-door controls a colossal creature half a planet away as her personal avatar. My expectation was to encounter a series of skits and shtick that made fun of nerds, or saved the world…or something.
What I got instead was a black comedy case study in the oppression of women by men.
Parallel to the supernatural events occurring, we follow Hathaway’s character arc. She plays Gloria, a failed writer in mid-life crisis, whose self-centered boyfriend, Tim (Dan Stevens), has had enough of her alcoholism and kicks her out of his New York City apartment. While this is somewhat understandable, Tim comes off as highly lacking in empathy and totally controlling. It’s obvious Gloria could use some help to address her behavior, and also that maybe Tim would be fine with her self-abuse if it didn’t interfere with his awesome life. He’s not taking her to AA, he’s showing her the door.
So, Gloria ends up returning to her small hometown in New Hampshire, forced to figure out how to start her life over. There, she reconnects with her childhood friend, Oscar (Jason Sudeikis), who happens to own a bar and offers her work. Not only that, he helps her settle down by giving her a TV and some furniture – what a guy! He also helps exacerbate her alcohol problem with some late-night drinking sessions. To no one’s surprise, Oscar’s intentions turn out to be less than honorable, as he starts having romantic feelings for Gloria, which she does not reciprocate.
And here’s where things get weird. In juxtaposition to Gloria’s giant monster, Oscar finds he too, has an avatar in the shape of a giant robot. Where Gloria was horrified that her actions were literally crushing humans beneath her feet, Oscar revels in the destruction he causes, and uses the threat of that violence to control Gloria and make her obey him. It’s literally, “Do as I say, or I will destroy Seoul.” In desperation, Gloria tries to fight Oscar, which causes an epic battle between their immense avatars, and of course, he overpowers her due to gender-related biological advantages. I’ll skip the resolution to the film for viewers to discover on their own, but suffice to say, it’s unexpected and satisfying.
Colossal came out in early 2017, when America had elected Russia had installed a male chauvinist pig as president, one who bragged of his sexual predation prowess, but had not yet reckoned with the full impact of the “woke” reaction to come down the pike. The film quickly came and went in the theaters, and even dedicated sci-fi/monster fans let it slip by, unaware of the larger impact the film was to impart. But then, the Harvey Weinstein revelations began, followed by everybody from Kevin Spacey to Louis CK. Suddenly, the rampant sexual harassment and rape culture which women have contended with since, well, pretty much forever – suddenly we’re all talking about it. And thank god we are.
Which is why we need to take another look at Colossal. Timing is everything, and had the film been released in the autumn rather than in the spring, it could well have been a sleeper hit tapping into the zeitgeist of the new feminist revolution. Since the movie’s theatrical release cycle had ended too early, it’s time now, in the dawn of the #metoo era, to revisit this unexpected treasure on VOD.
What Colossal has to say about male violence against women doesn’t start with Oscar’s power trip triggered by being rejected by Gloria. Before that whole plot gets going, Gloria is emotionally crushed by the realization that she is killing people as if they were so many ants, simply by walking without caution. Guilt, shame, and deep distress torture her when she realizes the blood of so many is on her hands, regardless of how unintentional it may have been. At one point, she has the monster write “I’m sorry” in Korean by etching it in the ground, so as to communicate her remorse towards her victims.
By contrast, when Oscar starts controlling his avatar, rather than being traumatized by the wanton misery he causes, he thinks it’s fun and cool. With all the amorality and reckless abandon of a spoiled teenager, Oscar works his robot to terrorize for laughs, wielding his power just for the rush, as if he was speeding a muscle car down Main Street at the expense of the locals. As his anger towards Gloria grows, he uses his new power to hurt her by raining down terror on defenseless masses of strangers. His message is made plain: Gloria will obey him, or Seoul will feel his wrath.
The frustration Gloria faces is all too familiar. How many women, day after day, feel trapped by men in the office, at church, at the grocery store, or even at home, merely for wanting to move freely about their days? Oscar’s reaction to his unrequited love would be cliché were it not so prevalent. It’s pretty much “You won’t date me? Fuck you, bitch!” translated deceivingly into a genre tale. And the outsized violence his giant robot avatar causes serves as a substitute for the larger community of people who many such men indirectly oppress as they lash out when their privilege is challenged. It’s a slightly exaggerated version of what happens in real-life situations: the damage extends beyond the initial victim. Consider, for example, all the production staff primed to make TV and movies who are losing work now that Weinstein and CK have lost their deals with distributors, just because of their dicks. It doesn’t take a giant robot to harmfully disrupt a whole lot of lives.
As stated earlier, Gloria’s resolution is satisfying and clever. And while the ending feels a little too Hollywood, there is a valuable lesson regardless. Gloria spots a glitch in her situation which she can exploit to turn the whole battle around and exert her power to retaliate against Oscar quite effectively. In the movie universe’s rules, it’s a cute gimmick. In real life, through a far more painful and exhaustive process, that’s exactly what figures like Rose McGowan and Tig Notaro are doing right now. The Trump presidency has exposed the weakness in institutional misogyny. And women are becoming empowered through bravery, determination and sheer will. Finally, the stars have aligned, and feminism is having a long-overdue moment, rightly pushing back hard against a patriarchy which has abused its position for far too long.
Colossal showed up early to the party and nobody noticed. It’s time for film lovers to rediscover this effort which presaged the #metoo era by just a hair. Hopefully, this work heralds a larger artistic and cultural movement, one in which female artists see their full potential unleashed, altering the societal landscape as decidedly as a gigantic monster could. Only this time, may it be with the empathy and care which this film exercised in the execution of its storytelling. Bravo and encore.