Rethinking my kneejerk reactions to Colossal (2016)

Colossal poster

Colossal was a good watch. Anne Hathaway plays Gloria, an unemployed writer who is currently just a party girl with a drinking problem. When her boyfriend (Dan Stevens) gets sick of her drunken habits and kicks her out of his New York apartment, she goes to live in her home town, where she runs into her childhood friend Oscar (Jason Sudeikis). He helps her out and gives her a job in his bar (yes, alarm bells). In the movie’s odd but effective fantasy hook, a colossal monster starts appearing in Seoul, and Gloria realises that the creature is, in fact, her. Or rather, an avatar of her that appears in Seoul whenever she steps into a certain playground sandpit at a specific time of the morning. It’s a great metaphor for the destructiveness of personal vices and psychological problems, and for the most part I really enjoyed the movie. I’m not going to review it, but I wanted to share two things that struck me. There will be some spoilers from here on, but I haven’t revealed the ending.

About a third of the way into the movie, Gloria starts flirting with Oscar’s cute friend Joel. From the look of things, Gloria isn’t especially interested in this small-town guy  – he’s just cute and nice and she wants to sleep with him. Her drinking no doubt plays a role too. My immediate reaction to this was Nooo! Don’t do it! Oscar obviously has a thing for you! You’re going to hurt his feelings! Later, she sleeps with Joel and Oscar does, indeed, get upset. Very upset.

It’s a turning point in the film and the way things played out made me question my own reaction and break it down. Gloria wants to sleep with Joel. I thought she shouldn’t. Why not? Because Oscar likes her and presumably Oscar wants to sleep with her and Oscar is her childhood friend and Oscar is a ‘nice guy’ who helped her out when she needed it.

That’s not a a good answer. That’s a lot of misogynistic bullshit.

Oscar angryGloria doesn’t owe Oscar herself. He is not her boyfriend. He helped her out as a gesture of kindness and friendship, at least from her perspective. Gloria doesn’t react by flirting with him, and Oscar doesn’t show any clear romantic interest in her. There’s nothing going on between them. The audience knows he’s interested, but we’re familiar with the language of Hollywood film, with the movie-world meaning of a man’s kindness to a woman (a kindness that comes with ropes attached) and the way he looks and smiles at her. However, Gloria’s character doesn’t necessarily know it because she might not be picking up on the same cues. And even if she does realise he’s into her, so what? She doesn’t owe him physical intimacy because he gave her a lift, or a job, or some furniture he didn’t need. He can’t buy her, the same way men can’t buy sex with dinner and drinks. (Although, of course, they think they can.)

Gloria is also not obliged to restrict her sex life to avoid upsetting him. That’s another aspect of the culture of misogyny – the idea that it’s a woman’s job to protect men’s feelings, regardless of how it affects their own. I was annoyed with myself for falling into that trap, for thinking that Oscar’s feelings were more important than hers, that she should not choose another man over him because he was a ‘nice guy’ who’d laid some sort of claim on her.

I might not have noticed I’d done this if the movie were a romance and Oscar played the wounded heart until she realised he was the better guy, or was simply disappointed and moved on like a decent human being. He would have looked selfless and sweet and I would have continued to think of Gloria as insensitive and selfish. But Oscar is not a good guy. He is not a decent human being, and he might only have helped her as a means of wielding power over her. So when she sleeps with Joel (as she has every right to do) he full sociopath. He already shows signs of it when he finds out he too has a colossal avatar and starts terrorising Seoul for kicks. Then he finds out that he has less control over Gloria than he thought, so he clamps down, blackmailing her with his ability to murder hundreds if not thousands of people and destroy a city. At which point the movie gets waaay darker but so much more interesting than I expected it to.

 

That said, I was bothered by the way Seoul is used as the site where two affluent Americans play out their personal drama and psychological problems. Gloria has been unemployed for an entire YEAR, and yet she’s still partying in New York City when her boyfriend kicks her out of his apartment. Sucks for her, but it doesn’t present a serious problem such as homelessness. She can afford to travel back to her gorgeous home town where her parents have an entire house standing empty for her to use. She accepts a job as Oscar’s waitress, but it’s like she needs something to do rather than money to survive on.

I empathise with her personal problems and I love the way her destructiveness is illustrated by the fact that she gets drunk and becomes a giant monster who clumsily kills and destroys just by falling over, but I was uncomfortable with the idea that it’s a faraway, non-western country that takes the damage. Okay, sure, the kaiju film genre that originated in Japan makes Korea an apt location, but I imagine the premise would be less acceptable if the monsters materialised in New York, for example, where all the deaths would be considered more horrific.

The movie eases the discomfort, I think, by choosing a city as wealthy as Seoul and making it clear that their society is coping pretty well. Life seems to go on more or less as usual, with the monsters becoming a bizarre form of entertainment for Instagram and YouTube. The body count matters only in terms of how guilty it makes Gloria feel, how easily Oscar can use violence to manipulate her, and how driven she is to do something about it.

On the other hand, consider the satire here – an entire city and its people are reduced to a playground where a bunch of white Americans act out their personal problems, drinking beer while they watch themselves cause havoc online. They are privileged specifically because they get to just watch, as Oscar points out to Gloria earlier in the movie, when she first sees the news and starts freaking out.

It’s also interesting to consider how that dynamic of the narrative would shift if you changed the location. Would Oscar be less likely to casually kill Americans instead of foreigners? Quite possibly, and that’s saying something about the value attached to humans based on what they look like and where they were born. Would it be too difficult for American audiences to buy into the story if the monster appeared in their country? Maybe. What about a European city? No; wrecking ancient architecture would have us too distracted and upset to side with Gloria. An African city? Highly controversial territory, having two white people get drunk and crush black people beneath their feet. The movie doesn’t get that real.

Now that I’ve written myself through the only real problem I had with Colossal, I can recommend it more highly. I still have issues with it – the explanation for how all the kaiju stuff happens is lame – but Anne Hathaway puts in a great performance and it’s one of the more interesting sff offerings I’ve seen lately.

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3 thoughts on “Rethinking my kneejerk reactions to Colossal (2016)

  1. Haven’t seen the movie (or heard of it until now), but your use of “misogynistic” to describe your reaction to the love triangle intrigued me. Would your reaction to the set up be different if the characters’ genders were different? What if Gloria was a man and Oscar and Joel were women? What if all three characters were women?

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