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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Morgan (2016)

Minor spoilers ahead, but still a lot less revealing than the trailer.

I’m feeling a little lonely here. Few people seem to like Morgan, the 2016 sci fi thriller written by Seth Owen and directed by newcomer Luke Scott. Among its producers is Luke’s rather more famous father, Ridley Scott, which I guess explains why Luke got such a stellar cast for his feature-length directorial debut.

Research facility

Morgan (Anya Taylor-Joy, who looks like she might be Hollywood’s new It-Girl) is a genetically engineered child – the ‘L-9 prototype’ – with advanced, accelerated emotional and physical development. Something is clearly wrong with her design however; when Dr Kathy Grieff (Jennifer Jason Leigh) tells Morgan that she won’t be allowed to go outside for a while, Morgan stabs her repeatedly in the eye.

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Morgan, missing the outdoors

A corporate risk management consultant, Lee Weathers (Kate Mara) is sent to assess the viability of the project, as explained by a voiceover from her superior, played by Brian Cox. Lee is a stone-cold professional whose ruthless manner doesn’t go down well with most members of the team of specialists who designed, created and care for Morgan, because they’ve come to see her as their child, and formed a kind of family unit around her. Instead of lab tests and training sessions, video footage of the L-9 project shows the team playing with Morgan outside and throwing her a birthday party. They speak of her with pride and love, and Lee crisply tells them that Morgan is not a ‘she’ but an ‘it’ who has no rights whatsoever.

Lee Weathers

Lee Weathers

Because it concerns a young, artificial creature whose humanity is called into question, considers the difficulty of humans having close or intimate relationships with artificial beings, and features an isolated research facility in the woods, Morgan gets compared to movies like Splice (2009) and Ex Machina (2014), and it doesn’t fare well. The other two are genuinely interested in the methods and ethics of creating artificial life. In Scott’s movie, it’s not long before you stop asking whether Morgan can truly feel human emotion and settle down to see if she can beat Lee in brutal hand-to-hand combat or not.

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The house. Surely nothing bad could happen here

Morgan gleams with potential but remains determinedly superficial. For example, when Dr Alan Shapiro (Paul Giamatti!) conducts a psych evaluation, he interrogates Morgan about the fact that she calls the team her friends. She may consider them friends, he says, but do they consider her as such? Would a friend keep you locked in a cage? It’s a good question. Can the scientists be her friends in any meaningful way? Can you be friends with a person or creature you created to be a weapon, a ‘potential product line’? What responsibilities do Morgan’s creators have towards her? Well, think about that on your own time; this film just gets violent.

psych-evaluation

The psych evaluation

Similarly, there’s the troubling question of Morgan’s relationship with behaviourist Amy (Rose Leslie) who has ‘boundary issues’. Amy is clearly attracted to Morgan and the feeling may be mutual. There’s no evidence that their relationship has become intimate, but it could, if given the opportunity. The thing is, Morgan is five years old. What the fuck is Amy doing? Then again, Morgan develops at an accelerated rate, so she already looks like a teenager, and she has enhanced emotional development. She’s a new kind of life form, so we can’t necessarily judge their relationship according to the usual standards. If this sounds complicated, well, you need not worry because the movie doesn’t have the guts to take it any further anyway.

Amy

Amy

I wondered though, if Morgan is manipulating Amy and the other characters, perhaps to ensure her own survival or just because that’s how she’s learned to be around people. We know that she has some level of precognition, as demonstrated when she gets under Dr Shapiro’s skin by revealing that he has a daughter who he doesn’t get to see very often. How much of her behaviour involves her ‘reading’ people and behaving in whatever way they want or expect her to behave? Not that that’s especially disturbing; isn’t it just an enhanced version of how most people behave? Nevermind – skip to action sequence.

Amy-and-Morgan

Amy and Morgan, crossing boundaries

Despite its commitment issues, I like Morgan. A lot. It isn’t the cerebral sf thriller that it might look like, or that its cast seems to suggest it is but it’s way better than most of the commercial sf out there, especially the superhero movies that get much more attention. I’m comparing them because Morgan gave me the entertainment I want but seldom find in the latest blockbusters. I don’t expect them to be brilliant; I just want them to be fun, but they’re way too long and they generate such little interest in the characters and plots that even the action scenes bore me. They waste my time.

Morgan didn’t. It’s fast-paced and efficient, stylish, and exceptionally beautiful to look at. I like the colour palettes and the way they shift with the narrative. Most of the major characters are female and the film doesn’t objectify them.

It successfully occupies an interstitial space that’s thoughtful enough to engage my intellectual interests, then indulge my mindless ones. It blooms with ideas, but avoids the risks of dealing with them. Yes, that’s cowardly. It starts out smart and geek-chic, then goes mainstream. That can be seen as a good thing, not because martial arts are more exciting than moral debates, but because the latter requires a deft touch. Of course, I have no idea if Seth Owen and Luke Scott were up to the task; I’m saying it might have been worse if they’d tried and performed poorly. As it is, I found plenty to think about, to enjoy, and I can’t argue with my own satisfaction.

Crumbs: post-apocalyptic Ethiopian sci fi

Crumbs-posterCrumbs wandered onto my radar as a post-apocalyptic Ethiopian sci fi movie. It’s actually written and directed by Spaniard Miguel Llansó, but it’s set in Ethiopia (where Llansó lives for half the year and does most of his filming), with an Ethiopian cast, and it’s in Amharic with subtitles. It’s an experimental take on the genre and a completely new film experience for me, so my interest was piqued. Luckily, it was screened in Cape Town at That Film Focus, the film component That Art Fair, which took place in February this year.

 

In a far-flung future, humanity has lost its will to survive. There are no children, which immediately brings to mind the despondent, violent chaos of Children of Men, but the wars that this world has suffered are now over. Society has become the quiet, demented realm of the elderly, with a distorted sense of history and culture. Ethiopia, once densely populated, is depicted with vast, empty landscapes and abandoned settlements. People idolise the toys of a lost world and trade them for cash in a mysterious, cluttered pawn shop, although nothing is nearly as valuable as it used to be. They’re just cycling through old routines, perhaps. Nor is it clear why there are Nazis in masks wandering around. Not that “Nazi” necessarily means anything here; they could just be men in uniform wearing the swastikas they found somewhere. A spaceship hovers inexplicably in the sky and we’re barely told anything about that either.

Crumbs-soldier

The tiny, hunchbacked Candy and his beautiful young lover, Birdy, live in an old bowling alley and watch the ship closely. They’re scavengers who have quietly scraped together an artistic, spiritual life, although the objects of their devotion are unique to this plodding world. Birdy creates art from discarded plastic and scrap metal, and the couple worship at a shrine built around a picture of Michael Jordan and a bottle of Coke. Their most prized possessions include an orange plastic sword (manufactured by “the last pure artist”) and a Michael Jackson record (although no one knows who he is any more).

The couple believe that they are from another world, and when the spaceship above them comes to life, switching on the bowling machinery to eerie effect, Candy leaves on a mission to find a way on board so they can go home. His goal is to find Santa Claus, because Santa can make your wishes come true. He takes the plastic sword for protection and the Michael Jackson record to barter with a witch whose help he needs.

Crumbs-Candy

This sounds comic, but it’s all deadly serious to the characters, and although the movie has some humour, it’s mostly quite earnest, which just makes it even weirder. And Crumbs is really weird. Have you seen the trailer? I suggest you watch it so you have an idea of what to expect, although it’s more intense than the actual movie. Most viewers will be stumped, and many might find it too alien to enjoy.

For me, it’s strange in the kind of way I could (sort of) enjoy without fully understanding, even though I tend to be quite pedantic about these things. The crunch of Birdy’s footsteps over gravel (one of my favourite sounds) provides a gently hypnotic soundtrack as he traverses arid landscapes and abandoned buildings. It reminds me of Tarkovsky’s Stalker (1979), although in this case the surreal quality of the film comes from the people rather than the landscape. Candy’s journey is slow, occasionally interrupted by bizarre and sometimes hostile encounters. It works, I think, because its confusing and unnerving qualities are countered by its calm tone and Birdy’s solemn determination. Now that I think about it, some of the movies I dislike for their weirdness were those whose absurdities are amplified by humour or intense energy in the form of action, pacing and/or emotional drama: it’s too jarring, too much to take in when I want room for contemplation.

Crumbs-art-Birdy-shipAlso, having lived in Ethiopia, Crumbs doesn’t feel entirely opaque to me; I see traces of the country’s contemporary urban life in the movie’s loony world. All the toys make sense: Addis Ababa, for some reason, has tons of toyshops. The shopping centre down the road from my house had about five or six, which was a crazy number in relation to the size of the shopping centre and the limited variety of stores.

My guess is that toys and other kids’ paraphernalia are among the easiest things to import, along with clothing and electronics. I say ‘import’, which implies a planned process, but it looks more like Ethiopia is a dumping ground for retail leftovers, made-in-China junk or whatever random merchandise shop owners are able to bring back in their suitcases from trips to more affluent countries. The result is that you’ll find clusters of teeny shops shops selling mostly indistinguishable assortments of mostly crappy stuff.

Of course, this is all western-world merchandise, and I imagine its ubiquity feeds the general anxiety about the effects of that world on tradition. Ethiopia has a robust culture and the majority of its people are deeply religious, but it’s nevertheless a poor country invaded by rich expats, so there’s every reason to worry about its unique and age-old qualities drowning in tat.

In Crumbs this fear has been realised: Abrahamic religion has been replaced with toy worship and western icons. Candy isn’t looking for Jesus but for Santa Claus. At the bowling alley, with its Michael Jordan shrine, Birdy prays to the saints Einstein, Hawking, Bieber and McCartney. The only enterprise we see people engage in involves pawning toys and other bits and bobs that are revered but simultaneously decreasing in value. A voiceover by the pawn-shop owner about the history of each artefact reveals how completely garbled the past has become, while also suggesting that we might be equally deluded about our own contemporary cultural practices.

Insights aside, I didn’t leave feeling like I had a good grasp of the movie, and I’m not sure I’d watch it again, except to share the experience with someone else and discuss it. But it is certainly a movie worth talking about.

Daily Reads: Monday 17/11/2014

Daily Reads 17112014

Morning everyone! I’m online early-ish today (for some parts of the world, anyway), with SA author Dave-Brendon de Burgh’s debut novel Betrayal’s Shadow on my desk, ready to review. Before I get started on that, here are today’s Daily Reads:

– Jared from Pornokitsch has been sick in bed reading duchess porn, and came up with a list of five things epic fantasy can learn from historical romance. I particularly like the points about sex, gender equality (yep, even historical romance is waaay more progressive) and a sense of humour. And now I kind of want to read duchess porn…

– The Little Red Reviewer interviews one of my favourite authors – Ken Liu! He chats about his themes, translating Chinese sf, and gives the best answer for reading translated sf – not because it’s ‘good’ for you, but because it’s fun to try new things.

– Lynn’s Book Blog hosts author S.L. Eaves for a guest review of the home-invasion horror movie You’re Next! (2011). And it sounds pretty good! I like horror, but I do find that the genre tends to generate a lot of crap, so I’m always glad to hear about something worth watching.

Have a great week guys 🙂

 

Daily Reads is my new little feature for helping me get more organised about my online reading, and sharing my favourite posts with you. If you know of something cool you think I should check out, please let me know in the comments 🙂

A few horror stories for Halloween

It’s Halloween! Although, admittedly, this is not a big deal to me, just an excuse to dress up and party that we got from Americans. But it’s fun, so I thought I’d share my favourite horror short stories and movies from the past year. Some of them might have elements of horror rather than falling squarely into the genre, but these are the fictions that disturbed me the most. All the short stories and the short film is available for free, and I haven’t shared any plot details.

In no particular order:

The Coffin-Maker’s Daughter by Angela Slatter
Actually, this one deserves to be first, because when I read it this morning I remembered that it was Halloween and I decided to do this post. I was reading Slatter’s story “Flight” in the modern fairytale anthology Once Upon a Time, and I quite liked it, so I skimmed her bio at the end of the tale. This led me to the British Fantasy Award winning “The Coffin-Maker’s Daughter” at Nightmare magazine. It’s a twisted, lustful tale and absolutely perfect for the occasion.

Lydia’s Body by Vylar Kaftan
This is the kind of story that shows me the kind of nuanced forms that horror can take.

full_witchofduvaThe Witch of Duva: A Ravkan Folk Tale by Leigh Bardugo
If you’re reading these stories in the order I’ve posted them, you might notice some themes here, like complex, tormented female protagonists. And this one should not be missed. If you don’t recognise Leigh Bardugo’s name, you may recall her other short story on Tor, “The Too-Clever Fox” – an even better tale that I considered adding to this list (but it’s less creepy).

BlinkyTM
I’m starting to dislike this kind of portrayal of AI, but FUCK, this is a great short film. The ending…!

The ConjuringThe Conjuring
I love horror movies, but, let’s face it, the genre doesn’t often produce top-quality film, and I personally find that many horror movies fall flat towards the end. The Conjuring is an eerily good exception. It scared the shit out of me, and I enjoyed it from beginning to end. Also, that doll is extremely fucking creepy.

Mama
Ok, this is one of those horror movies with a terrible ending that I will skip every time i rewatch it, but everything else is superb – great acting, compelling characters, and some of my favourite horror scenes and ideas.