Spaniard Nacho Vigalondo’s first two features, “Timecrimes” and “Extaterrestrial,” were notable for ingeniously containing fantastical concepts within very small-scale, low-budget-friendly narrative limits. With “Colossal,” he actually gets to visualize the more outlandish aspects of a new fantasy tale via the digital effects and crowd scenes that normally come with the territory — whether it be time travel, alien invasion, or (in this case) giant monsters battling it out atop a cityscape.
But if the physical canvas has gotten bigger here, the writer-director’s imagination is otherwise in somewhat reduced form. “Colossal” takes diminishing advantage of an amusing premise, one that seems made for satirical treatment yet is executed with an increasingly awkward semi-seriousness the characters aren’t depthed (or likable) enough to ballast. Anne Hathaway’s top billing will make this a bigger commercial prospect than Vigalondo has enjoyed abroad previously. In the end, however, his conceptually eccentric enterprise may be too idiosyncratic for mainstream audiences, yet not enough for arthouses.
After a brief prologue suggesting a giant-monster sighting in the Far East a quarter-century ago, we’re introduced to the more humdrum catastrophe that is Gloria (Hathaway) as she drags herself in at dawn from another night of reckless partying. Fed up with her excuses, excessive drinking, lack of employment (since she blew her last job a year ago) and other faults she refuses to address, British boyfriend Tim (Dan Stevens) evicts her from his life and Manhattan apartment until she gets her act together.
Having presumably burnt all other bridges, Gloria heads shamefacedly back to a conveniently empty family home in the small town she’d left as a child. There she promptly runs into grade-school chum Oscar (Jason Sudeikis), who’s clearly been holding a torch for her despite a complete lack of contact over the interim 25 years. He kindly offers a waitressing job at the local bar he inherited from his parents, and where he seems to spend most of his time hanging with best buds Garth (Tim Blake Nelson) and Joel (Austin Stowell).
As these minor personal dramas go on, however, the world’s attention is riveted to something major: On the other side of the world, a towering scaly monster has mysteriously reappeared after many years in Seoul, where it wreaks Godzilla-style havoc. Glued to the resulting news footage like everyone else, Gloria soon makes a connection that at first seems preposterous: When she makes any particular moves on a local playground at an early-morning hour, the monster duplicates them. In fact, it seems to be precisely following her lead.
This seems like the greatest party trick ever until she realizes that falling down in a drunken stupor under these circumstances can result in hundreds of dead South Koreans. She determines to sober up and spare further innocent lives. Unfortunately, by then Oscar has realized he also has the same baffling ability (materializing in Seoul as a giant robot), and his increasingly possessive attitude towards Gloria gives her little choice but bend to his emotional blackmail — lest there be more inebriated hijinks and a lot more dead Koreans.
It would seem built into this outré premise that these immature people think the world revolves around their petty emotional conflicts — and that the way in which it actually, disastrously does might be taken as a metaphor for Americans’ often heavy international footprint. But those themes and their rich satirical potential are left entirely undeveloped here. Instead, perversely, Vigalondo takes matters more earnestly even as Oscar reveals himself as a bigger jerk than hapless but essentially harmless Gloria could ever be.
Neither of them are much worth rooting for, so “Colossal” becomes a movie about small people whose messy personal “issues” create preposterously huge collateral damage. That’s something that ought to get funnier as it goes along, but despite a relatively satisfying resolution, “Colossal” instead milks diminishing humor from an inherently absurd conceit.
As she already once played a memorable monster of sorts herself in “Rachel Getting Married,” one might look forward to perpetual ingenue Hathaway re-inhabiting trainwreck territory. But both Hathaway and her director seem afraid to make her character get (or look) too down ‘n’ dirty, missing their opportunity for a more grotesquely funny lead. Likewise, Sudeikis is fine, but if Vigalondo was determined to turn the initially amiable Oscar into a snake, he and the actor ought to have taken the figure’s darkness yea farther. Stevens, Stowell, and particularly Nelson have their resources under-tapped here.
Though most of its progress takes place in the generic small-town setting (filmed in British Columbia), “Colossal” doesn’t stint on the Seoul-shot death and destruction — scenes which are glimpsed with teasing brevity until a climactic effects blowout. Paying homage to classic Japanese tokusatsu cinema, this material is fun; it’s on the human-scaled plane that “Colossal” fails to realize its full potential, finally coming off as slick stretch of a joke that needn’t have played quite so thinly.