‘Colossal’: A monster movie that takes on toxic masculinity

Starring Anne Hathaway as a girl with a Godzilla-style alter-ego.

Jason Sudeikis and Anne Hathaway in “Colossal.” CREDIT: Neon
Jason Sudeikis and Anne Hathaway in “Colossal.” CREDIT: Neon

This story discusses the plot of “Colossal” in full.

The premise of Colossal, the one you can see from the trailer, is that Anne Hathaway is a monster. More specifically: Hathaway’s Gloria, a ne’er-do-well, unemployed, drunk is the human trigger for a Godzilla-like monster that materializes in Seoul whenever Gloria walks through a specific place at a specific time. Her movements, including a telling head-scratch, are its movements. And the consequences of those movements are appropriately outsize: Gloria takes an unsuspecting step forward, and her kaiju creature crushes a building, killing hundreds of innocents.

But the twist of Colossal, at once darker and far less strange than the construct of the movie, is that Gloria is surrounded by monsters. And all of the monsters are men.

None of them present as all that monstrous, at first. There’s her boyfriend in New York, Tim (Downton Abbey’s Dan Stevens), who at first seems like a typical rom-com plot device: The exasperated boyfriend of the heroine who needs to get her act together and is tired of waiting for her to improve. There’s childhood friend Oscar, (Jason Sudeikus), who takes Gloria under his wing when she returns to their hometown, tail between her legs and feeling like a failure. And there’s Joel, (Austin Stowell), Oscar’s friend, a quiet, nice-seeming dude who starts crushing on Gloria the minute she shows up.

The warning signs about Oscar come early. Depending on your sensitivity to alarming male behavior, your mileage may vary. It’s telling where you think the tipping point is. Is there something unnerving about the way he says he’s been “following” Gloria’s career, that edge of jealousy in his voice? Is it a little disconcerting, for a reason that’s hard to place, that he keeps popping by Gloria’s empty house with unsolicited furniture? He says they talked about it; she was drunk so, maybe she just blacked out, maybe she’s remembering wrong, overreacting. Does your skin start crawling when Oscar viciously lashes out at Joel for trying to kiss Gloria?

The strongest element of ‘Colossal’ is its refusal to adhere to any movie conventions, its total commitment to exposing all the forms toxic masculinity can take.

Or does it take until Oscar finds out that he, too, has a antihero alter-ego — a Voltron-scale robot — and uses this revelation as a device to threaten, abuse, and control Gloria’s every move? To pressure her to drink when she doesn’t want a beer (if she doesn’t, he promises to use his power to kill a bunch of people and leave their graves on her conscience). To coerce her into staying in their little, do-nothing town that he’s been unable to escape (if she leaves, who will keep him from kicking over a skyscraper and sending hundreds tumbling to their deaths?).

He taunts her about her inability to stop him — not to mention the obvious futility of calling the police — and revels in what he sees as a final, overdue victory over her. He’s the human embodiment of a Men’s Rights blog comments section, someone who can twist any narrative to cast himself as the blameless victim. As Hathaway told Vulture, “You’ve met that guy. And part of the reason it becomes sickening is because you realize that you know that guy.”

From left: Tim Blake Nelson, Austin Stowell, and Jason Sudeikis in “Colossal.” CREDIT: Neon
From left: Tim Blake Nelson, Austin Stowell, and Jason Sudeikis in “Colossal.” CREDIT: Neon

The performances are spectacular: Sudeikis is chilling, an explosive cocktail of insecurity, envy, and rage. Hathaway is, in the midst of all the horror, hilarious, and so human. But the strongest element of Colossal is its refusal to adhere to any movie conventions, its total commitment to exposing all the forms toxic masculinity can take.

Writer-director Nacho said one of his intentions was to challenge classic rom-com tropes, which basically tell men that objectively criminal things — like harassing and stalk the object of affection — are actually grand gestures signifying and deserving nothing less than true love. He told The Verge, “I was aware from the beginning that the movie was dancing around within the tropes of romantic comedies…I love some of those films, but at the same time, some of them are really problematic. Most romantic comedies, the message is like, ‘If you persist enough, you will get her.’ They encourage behavior that’s terrifying these days. ‘If you stop her wedding, you won’t go to jail. You will just show your charms to her, and she will prefer to go to you.’ So something like that was inside the kindling of this movie. I wanted to play with those rules in a different way.”

Movie logic dictates that Joel, the soft-spoken, sweet sidekick who has sex with Gloria, would summon the willpower to stand up to Oscar and defend Gloria. But Joel — the guy who, it seems safe to assume, men who think of themselves as good people will identify with the most — does nothing.

His inaction is shocking only because the context is a movie; in the movies, the good guy steps up, saves the day, gets the girl. In real life, as women find all too often, nice guys would rather just not get involved. Nice guys think maybe this is something you should just work out, like, the two of you. Nice guys don’t want to not be nice, even to abusers. Think of the latest high-profile serial sexual predator to be publicly shamed and ousted from his job. He worked with an awful lot of people. Many of them must have been men. I’m sure most of those men were very nice. And quiet.

Move logic, too, has a role for Tim, who flies out to get Gloria when she goes AWOL. He sees for himself the violence Oscar will happily inflict. In addition to using his robot-avatar to take out Koreans, Oscar beats up Gloria and, in one surreal scene, lights his own bar on fire while standing inside it, with Gloria and Tim as the audience for his chaos. Oscar is bad, and Tim is technically the third point in their love triangle; he’s supposed to be good, because someone has to be. But the more time you spend with Tim, you realize he, too, is an abuser: A psychological and emotional one, who criticizes and demeans Gloria at every opportunity, keeping her at heel.

Colossal is, obviously, a weird, out-there movie. And unlike the blockbuster weird, out-there Get Out, the execution can’t always keep up with its unwieldy, if fiercely intelligent, ideas. (The movie also calls to mind Big Little Lies, and its thoughtful, considered examination of the complex power dynamics within abusive relationships.) It falters a bit under the weight of everything it is trying to do and say and be.

But it’s exciting to see a film that’s game to be this bizarre, tackling ideas this real, in such unexpected ways. A story about power that doesn’t try to be “empowering” in some cutesy, you-go-girl way, one there the ending you hope for isn’t a big, beautiful kiss but a big, beautiful ass-kicking.