San Sebastian review: Colossal (Nacho Vigalondo)

In a small sleepy town in the United States, on her way back from a bar to her place at dawn, a drunk girl walks through a children’s playground. At the exact same time in Seoul, a monster of gigantic proportions mimics her every move, but its playground is the whole city, with its buildings and its inhabitants being crushed in the process. Are the girl and the monster connected? Yes. How and why? That is not the point. What does matter, as in every great fantasy tale, is the question where this thread can take us if we unravel it and make a story out of it. The Spanish director Nacho Vigalondo understands this perfectly, and through this understanding creates a thrilling monster movie, smart and playful, generous and worthy on every level, in every dare it takes up.

Nearly ten years ago, producer J.J. Abrams and director Matt Reeves brought the monster movie genre into the modern meta-cinema era with Cloverfield. The people in this film were supposedly documenting, with a single digital camera, their escape from a giant alien beast destroying Manhattan. One decade and one generation of portable recording and broadcasting devices later, not only can we all be witnesses and filmmakers of a disaster movie occurring where we live; we are potential agents of cataclysmic events anywhere in the world. Gloria, the main character in Colossal, learns about this special ability of hers, then learns how to master it, thanks to all the communication tools that make our planet so much smaller than it used to be. Today, whatever happens in Seoul reaches every television set across the planet and every smartphone connected to the Internet instantaneously – especially if it is the appearance of a colossal monster.

This undoing of all scale of space or time, replaced by a state in which any image from anywhere is available right now, is also brought to good use by Vigalondo, who draws exciting shots and ideas of cinema from it. It can rely on what we see (Gloria doing her moves in the playground, and somewhere in the frame a screen showing the monster moving along at the same time), what we hear (the distant sound of people, in their homes, cheering to what they see the monster doing on TV, which is based on something Gloria just did right down the road), or nothing more than what we picture in our minds (from a simple shot of feet walking carelessly around the playground, with no one but us and Gloria knowing the terrible damage this is causing in Seoul). What binds these scenes together, besides the fact that they always end up being great, is that they are all based on the same rhythm – first an action from Gloria, then a reproduction by the monster, and eventually the repercussions on the world and back to Gloria. This quick-paced, three-sound rhythm is the one our world lives by today.

From this direct tapping into the beat of our world, Colossal obtains the ability to operate on so many levels, close to perfection on each of them. Vigalondo manages the changes in tone as well as the differences in scale. His movie is equally comic and tragic, intimate and global, entertaining and thoughtful. The ludicrousness of the pitch is never ignored but fully embraced, prompting genuine bursts of laughter. And yet the fantasy elements do work literally. Similarly, Colossal never stops delighting us with its plot twists and thrills, while at the same time taking a thorough and relevant look at the world we evolve in, and what we should make out of that. The clever visual allegory, of how the entire planet is now absolutely reachable to everyone, opens the way to a reflection on what this power demands from us. This is where the quality of the performances delivered by the two main actors becomes significant. Facing Jason Sudeikis who gets to play, at last, the inverted and maleficent version of the common male comic character he always does, Anne Hathaway’s portrait of Gloria is in sync with the feminist subtext of Colossal. With her in the lead the movie turns into the story of the extraordinary empowerment of an ordinary woman, who ends up singlehandedly saving an entire city, with nothing more than her bravery and her firm conviction that she can indeed do it.