Sometime in the next two weeks, if you’re lucky, your local art theater will be picking up a film called Colossal. You may have seen some of the (very minimal) advertising. Yes, it’s that new movie with Anne Hathaway in it. Yes, it also features a giant, kaiju-esque monster destroying Seoul, South Korea. Yes, the trailers make it look like some kind of wacky indie comedy that combines those two things. But no, that isn’t really the case.
The reality is that Colossal is actually far more interesting, and far darker and serious-minded, than its marketing is letting on. It’s a film about guilt, responsibility, martyrdom and toxic—nay, terrifying—masculinity run rampant. It ends with a satisfying, cathartic conclusion that will leave you pondering its themes—catch our full review right here if you want to avoid spoilers.
But more than anything, the thing I find myself ruminating on is just how profoundly unlikable every character is in this film. They’re not just distasteful, they’re historically unsympathetic. This is not to say that there aren’t targets of sympathy—they’re just not our main characters. Colossal is like some kind of odd achievement in creating an effective film without needing characters who are decent human beings with whom the audience can identify. Judged solely on their actions and personalities, the five primary actors range from “pretty bad person” to “irredeemable monster.” And so, let’s look at each of them in greater detail.
Reminder: Please keep in mind, this is a film to which I gave a positive review. It probably will not sound like that in this piece, but it’s still true.
Our primary protagonist is the least terrible of these people in the same sense that Moe is “the smartest” of the Three Stooges—she needs a relative comparison to the rest to come off as even remotely likable. Her sins are “merely” the fact that she’s an irresponsible, blackout-prone alcoholic who drags everyone else around her into the mire.
Gloria is a 30-something “writer” whose backstory is only vaguely suggested, rather than expanded upon. Characters such as Oscar (Jason Sudeikis) and her ex-boyfriend Tim (Dan Stevens) make reference to what sounds like a former blogging role of some renown and significance, but we have no idea whatsoever of what that might have been. Oscar amusingly suggests that she was doing “something important” at one point, to which the audience can only say, “Uhhh, OK, if you say so.” Gloria demonstrates no knowledge or insight about any particular field in the film, so god only knows what kind important work she was supposedly doing before becoming a raging alcoholic. The one clue we’re giving for the reason of her transformation is that she was apparently fired over a pun gone awry. No really: She was fired because of a bad pun. That’s in the script.
Regardless, what she does now is drink alcohol, although she doesn’t seem to be very good at it. She wakes up every morning in a variety of positions, typically in pain because she’s sleeping in ways that are fundamentally unsound from an ergonomic perspective, and usually with little to no memory of what happened the night before. Throughout the film, characters continuously bring up conversations from the previous day, which Gloria does not remember at all—i.e., she gets blackout drunk every single night, despite the fact that we really don’t ever see her that badly intoxicated for whatever reason. Clearly, she is a danger to herself and others.
Moving back to her hometown so she can live in her hollowed-out childhood home after being dumped by Tim, Gloria fabulously decides to start working in a bar, so she can be closer to the source of her personal demons. Shortly afterward, she makes the connection that is at the heart of the film, between her and the giant monster that is occasionally appearing to smash Seoul, South Korea. I’ll simply say it here and dispense with the pretension of no spoilers: When Gloria stands or walks through a particular park at a particular time of day, it manifests a monster in South Korea that follows her exact actions.
When Gloria finds out that she’s responsible for hundreds if not thousands of innocent Korean deaths, she’s initially so lacking in empathy that instead of trying to ameliorate the situation somehow, she instead shows off her monster connection to her bar buddies and ends up murdering more innocent people. Whoops! She then wises up and decides it might be better to stop killing people, only to be confronted with the reality that Oscar is a blooming psychopath who intends to hold South Korean lives for ransom by threatening to smash the city with his own giant monster projection (a robot) unless she continues to serve him as pretty thing/bar wench.
From there, we get a power struggle between the two, reflected in both their physical presences in America and their giant monster avatars in Seoul. Gloria, inefficient and illogical person that she is, decides that she can’t tell anyone outside their circle (such as the police) about what is happening, despite the fact that she is easily able to demonstrate the connection between herself and the monster, exactly as she did for her bar buddies. So once again, rather than doing the noble thing, the protagonist of the film allows more innocents to be murdered.
By the way: Gloria is presented to the audience as the most likable character in this movie.
Okay, so Gloria had some redemptive qualities. Oscar? Straight-up psychopathic monster in “nice guy’s” clothing. He is frankly terrifying at times.
This is also where Nacho Vigalondo’s savviness as a writer shines through. He understands the audience’s ingrained expectations of Oscar’s character archetype, and he uses those expectations to his advantage to deceive viewers who willingly want to be deceived. He presents Oscar as the old hometown childhood friend—perhaps an old flame?—who has reentered Gloria’s life at a time when she needs friends most. The audience looks at him and sees a cliched love interest. They see Josh Lucas in Sweet Home Alabama, because Vigalondo wants them to. Hey, this guy is nice! He’s so much more down to earth than her stuffy New York boyfriend! He’s going to give her a bunch of furniture that she didn’t ask for, help her get her life together and teach her important, small-town lessons about humility and practicality that she’s forgotten!
Oh, and he’s also going to commit genocide by trying to murder the entire population of Seoul, South Korea. You know, after imparting some folksy advice. And he’ll do it all so he can control Gloria like the men’s rights activist he is.
Oscar is obviously a portrait of toxic masculinity, taken to extremes, but he hides his mental illness pretty well at first. In fact, through about the first half of the film, the audience is only given a single hint that he has a dark side at all, when he chews out his friend Joel for hitting on Gloria. At the time, the outburst is so abrupt and strange the audience initially figures he must be joking, but this moment is instead the brief reveal of his true personality. His latent violent tendencies are finally brought forth by:
A. The possibility of Gloria leaving town and rejoining her ex boyfriend, and
B. The dawning realization of the power he wields over both her and innocents, because his presence in the park also summons a giant monster (the robot) of his own in Seoul.
Bear in mind, this is coming from a character who, not 20 minutes earlier in the film, gives Gloria a tender, “this is how I got emotionally hurt” speech about the woman he almost married, which works perfectly to curry sympathy for him with the audience. Vigalondo almost seems to want the people watching the film to feel ashamed of themselves for being so easily taken in by his facade. His entire depiction is a criticism of simply accepting what you’re told rather than looking for warning signs.
Oscar eventually blooms into a full-on psychopath, and it’s pretty terrifying to behold. He threatens to visit the park every morning and murder random South Korean residents unless Gloria stays in town and continues working at his bar, while tacitly implying that an employee is the least of his desires for her. He revels in the fact that he holds power over her because she has some basic empathy, and he has absolutely none. He’s so confident that she won’t leave him that even after Tim the ex-boyfriend comes to town to find Gloria, he creates a terrifying scene in his own bar by igniting dangerous fireworks, just to prove a point that she’s going to stay with him despite his actively threatening her physical safety.
Oscar displays a type of single-minded, soulless savagery that is rare, even among fictional characters. He breaks into Gloria’s home while she’s gone, then waits for her in the darkness like he’s the BTK killer. When she comes home and says she’s going to leave town with Tim, she bluntly confronts his insanity by stating, “You’ve lost your mind. You know that, don’t you?”
But like a true sociopath, he immediately and reflexively turns it back on her, making his actions into her responsibility: “The important thing now is that you don’t lose yours.” He is of course implying that Gloria would be the one losing her mind if she chose to leave and allowed him to kill thousands of innocent Koreans.
When Gloria finally gets the better of Oscar at the film’s conclusion, this is not a character who ever sees the errors of his ways. He remains defiantly, violently misogynist right up to the end—a monster, through and through.
These two barflies appear to be more or less the only friends of Oscar, which makes sense: They’re also pretty bad people, although not quite in the same league as a city-destroying psycho. Their faults are largely those of complete inaction and lack of empathy.
Joel is the more interesting of the two cases. He’s the youngest of the group, and Gloria immediately seems to take a flirtatious interest in him, which pisses off Oscar. They eventually do hook up, and although the tone seems to imply that the encounter is more out of boredom than affection, he’s the closest thing she has to a legitimate “love interest” in town. At the very least, he seems to have some kind of puppy dog crush on Gloria.
Which is exactly what makes it so disturbing that Joel doesn’t lift a finger to defend Gloria when Oscar assaults her while she attempts to defend the park/Seoul. Even with a self-serving reason to intervene (scoring points with Gloria) right in front of him, Joel is such a useless, spineless mess that he allows Oscar to knock Gloria down and then put her into a chokehold and render her immobile. Keep in mind that Joel knows all about their connection to the giant monsters in South Korea—he knows that if Oscar traipses through this park, it will directly result in the deaths of thousands of innocent people, and he chooses to do absolutely nothing to stop it. Joel is an accessory to several thousand murders, in addition to being the accessory to Gloria’s assault.
There’s a moment at the end of the film, after Gloria has dealt with Oscar, where we watch Joel watch TV. He sees Gloria in the background of a crowd and smiles in a good-natured way—as if the audience is somehow supposed to think, “Well, I guess this is a pretty alright guy.”
False. 1,000 percent false. Like every other character in Colossal, he’s actively terrible. Don’t lose sight of that.
Garth, meanwhile, actually does seem like a more or less normal person, except for a few weird little personality tics. His first words to Gloria are “You know what your problem is?” before trailing off into an unrelated story. This is perhaps explained by a rant that Oscar launches into near the end of the film, accusing Garth of apparently being a cocaine or meth addict. The audience doesn’t know if this is true, but he responds to this with both trepidation and anger, so perhaps Garth is an addict after all.
But who cares? Like Joel, his defining character trait ends up being that he knows exactly how the people of South Korea are being massacred, but chooses to do nothing about it. So fuck Garth. He’s no better than the rest.
This is the last of our major characters, so you’ve got to be hoping for some kind of redemption here, right? And at the very least, you can say this for Tim: He doesn’t kill any Koreans, or tacitly allow any Koreans to be murdered. He’s the only character so far who can make that claim. But in the end, he still ends up being a pretty bad guy. His forte just happens to be a more petty and mundane form of emotional abuse.
In the beginning of the film, he expels Gloria from his life in a very passive fashion. While she’s out drinking and partying (which she’s promised not to do, of course), he packs her bags and gets all of her things together. When she returns, he tells her that he can’t deal with her self-destructive tendencies any more. There’s no suggestion that perhaps he’d like to actually help Gloria at this point, simply that he’s tired of her and doesn’t want to deal with it any more. He tells her to leave the apartment, but then leaves himself so he won’t have to engage in any kind of unpleasant argument. Which is to say: Tim is a master of initiating but then running away from confrontations.
Two thirds of the way through the film, he shows up unannounced in Gloria’s hometown, wanting to check up on her. Of course, rather than admitting that this is what he’s there to do (which is painfully obvious), he instead lies to her about being in town “on business” because he’s too proud to look needy in front of his ex-girlfriend. This farce immediately falls apart when she goes to see him, which leads to him snapping at her and launching into a sarcastic tirade about how badly she’s fucking up her life, complete with put-downs and mockery of both her intelligence and ability to take care of herself. Nothing about his dialogue displays “concern,” which is ostensibly why he just traveled across the country to find her. Instead, he actively makes fun of her new station in life, before offering just enough of an apology to stop her from walking out the door, which reaffirms one of the movie’s persistent themes: Everyone wants to abuse Gloria until the moment she’s not about to put up with it any more, and then they reel her back in with promises that it won’t happen again. It’s Abuse 101.
That’s all for Tim. He eventually gives Gloria an ultimatum and then leaves her to sink or swim on her own.
So what do we make of this cast of characters? We have five people here, and all five are flawed to the point of fatality. None of them are human beings you would want to be around—mostly because they’re irresponsible or emotionally abusive, but potentially because they’re a danger to your very life as well. Is this realism? Or is it a world that goes beyond cynicism, to a place where even the characters being presented in a positive light are merely accessories to murder, rather than active murderers?
I can’t say. Parts of Colossal are still baffling to me, but it accomplishes a very unusual, very rare feat of being engaging and having powerful, enactable ethical themes, while simultaneously having a cast of characters who are almost entirely despicable.
So in the future, if you ever hear someone make the claim that a feature film needs “likable characters” as one of its elements of success, kindly point them in the direction of Colossal.
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and giant monster movie watcher. You can follow him on Twitter for more film writing.