Coming of age, kaiju-style

An interview with filmmaker Nacho Vigalondo about his curious genre clash, Colossal.

Anne Hathaway in Colossal

It’s difficult to describe Nacho Vigalondo’s Colossal to those who haven’t seen it. On one hand, it’s a sort of you-can’t-go-home-again dramedy that riffs on films like Garden State or Young Adult; on the other, it’s a loving homage to Japanese kaiju eiga, the giant monster genre best known for the Godzilla movies. If you can’t quite imagine how those two things come together, imagine writing the thing! I asked Vigalondo what came first: the monsters or the drama?

“I think the second choice is impossible,” he laughs. “What if I wrote this drama about frustration and failure in life and late coming-of-age… what if that was the first draft of the movie and I suddenly had the idea of putting kaiju in it? That would be crazy! You can have this premise — you can say ‘I’m going to relate these characters with kaiju eiga stuff this way,’ but that’s just a premise. That’s just the idea. In fact, I wrote this premise as a way to allow myself to make a low-budget monster movie. (…) That’s the kind of filmmaker I am: I’m a small-film-maker. If I’m going to make a monster movie, I have to be really aware of my limitations.”

Colossal does represent a significant bump-up in terms of scope and ambition for the Mexican filmmaker who first rose to prominence with the clever, minimalist sci-fi film Timecrimes. Vigalondo has specialized in high-concept, small-scale genre films, which remains an apt description of Colossal, despite its A-list cast and monster-movie leanings.

Anne Hathaway stars as Gloria, a rarely employed writer and full-time party animal who finds herself stuck between a rock and a hard place when her boyfriend Tim (Dan Stevens) tires of her antics and kicks her out. She moves back to her hometown, living in the empty house that her parents left behind. She begins spending time with an old school friend, Oscar (Jason Sudeikis), and his two cronies (Tim Blake Nelson and Austin Stowell), staying after hours at the bar that Oscar owns and generally not doing too much to alleviate the drinking problem that put her in this predicament in the first place. There’s reason to drink, as it turns out: every night, a giant monster materializes out of thin air in Seoul and causes undue carnage, destroying buildings and killing civilians… and Gloria has reason to believe that she has a direct link to the monster.

(This article will heretofore contain some mild spoilers from Colossal — some that may be discernable from the trailer, but spoilers nevertheless.)

Colossal’s characterizations are perhaps even more gutsy than its concept: both Gloria and Oscar are extremely difficult people in their own way, though Vigalondo also makes them deeply human beyond their character flaws. “I feel like respecting characters has a lot to do with being generous while also exposing their flaws,” says Vigalondo. “The great characters in fiction, through the years, are flawed characters. Those are the ones we like! The most interesting Superman stories are the ones where Superman is able to show some flaws. For me, it’s the natural way of making a character. I don’t need people to like the characters; I want people to reflect themselves in the characters. It’s like the way you have a best friend. When you like a person enough that they become your best friend or even your lover, it’s not because that person is perfect. It’s not because that person is flawless. It’s because their set of virtues and problematic stuff is something that attracts you.”

Like so many films seeing release in a Trump presidency, Colossal feels strangely prescient in a lot of way. Sudeikis’s character slowly peels away at his Nice Guy exterior to showcase a petty, needy toxic masculinity that isn’t likely to win the film any fans on the grosser corners of the Internet. “He’s playing the villain,” says Vigalondo. “But he’s not being the flamboyant, sexy, fabulous villain that everyone wants to play in a movie eventually. He’s not playing a James Bond or superhero villain. He’s playing a real villain and those are much more difficult to portray. Much more difficult to handle. You know, at Halloween, no one will want to dress as Jason Sudeikis in this movie, because he’s scary for real. We all know that actors want to play villains — this is a cliché. But if you think outside of those terms, he’s a real fucked-up person.”

In that sense, many consider Colossal to have a feminist point-of-view — not so much the reversal of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl archetype that it could seem to be as an excoriation of the myth of the Nice Guy. “There’s something really funny about how people react to the film,” continues Vigalondo. “For some people, Oscar’s transition into a bad guy comes out of nowhere. But the next person feels like the entire movie is filled with red flags! There was something really interesting that happened when reading the reviews. A few days after the release, some people were saying that the feminist undertones were too obvious. If you go back and read the first festival reviews, though, no one ever mentioned that.

“I don’t think it’s my duty to portray the film as being feminist. If the film is being perceived that way, it’s because the public perceives it. It should be in the discussion, but I think, especially being male, I can’t just put that label on myself. I can’t just say that I’m a feminist filmmaker. The film speaks for itself. It’s pretty clear, what it’s saying. But filmmakers shouldn’t rush into describing their films. I’m the filmmaker, obviously I can list the metaphors the movie contains… but I’m really against that. Once the movie exists, it’s in the hands of the audience. My intentions could be a failure — nobody should care about my intentions.” ■

Colossal opens in theatres on Friday, April 21. Watch the trailer here: