Colossal Is a Good Film but Bad Surrealism
The new monster movie should have taken a lesson from The Lobster, Exit West, or Buñuel — with surrealism, less is often more
Colossal, Nacho Vigalondo’s monster dramedy starring Anne Hathaway and Jason Sudeikis, has elicited a lot of strong reactions over the last few days, especially that part about Anne Hathaway controlling a city-stomping monster rampaging around Korea. It’s been described as having a “blithely bizarre conceit,” an audacious concept, and even as being “a delirious, moronic mess.” Most reviewers, even the haters, can’t help but appreciate its creativity. Gloria (Anne Hathaway), a directionless party girl bordering on alcoholism, returns to her hometown after being kicked out by her boyfriend. There, she discovers that she controls the movements of a giant monster that has been periodically crushing buildings and people in Seoul. The milieu is somewhere between monster movie, rom-com gone wrong, and what I’ll call the “magical portal” genre, which includes works such as The Wizard of Oz, Alice and Wonderland, The Lion The Witch and the Wardrobe, and, for a more contemporary example, Mohsin Hamid’s novel Exit West.
Each of these magic portals sets the characters on journeys to learn a lesson or facilitate a process of self-discovery. Alice, Dorothy, and the children of The Chronicles of Narnia learn bravery, sympathy, and a new appreciation for home. In Exit West, the lesson is more painful: Nadia and Saeed gain the phantom limb of a lost homeland. Colossal’s writer/director Vigalondo has described the movie as Being John Malkovich (1999) meets Godzilla (1956 & beyond), the former taking magical-portals further into surrealist territory.
Colossal, too, is organized around a surrealist conceit: Gloria manifests in two different places at once, in two different forms, while maintaining a single consciousness. (The monster has no consciousness — it cannot see, hear, or otherwise experience the world around it.) As Colossal delves deeper into its realist plot, which concerns issues of alcoholism and abuse, this surrealist conceit has the potential to amplify and deepen the film’s meaning through metaphor. If only that’s how it played out. Instead, Colossal falls victim to an old surrealist foe: the “rationalist” explanation.
I put rational in quotes because, despite the compelling originality and emotional urgency of the plot, Colossal’s keystone explanation is a failure. Every work with surrealist elements must strike an intricate balance between explicitly stating the rules of its surreality and leaving them loose or implied. Alice and Wonderland, for example, has clear rules for entering Wonderland — fall down the rabbit hole — but how to leave Wonderland is murky — fall asleep when the Queen comes for your head….? A trip to Oz, on the other hand, would be difficult to recreate (get caught in a tornado), but the route home is prescribed: tap your ruby slippers three times and appreciate Kansas with each click. At the intersection of surrealism and logic, there are rules which govern the fictional universe. In Colossal, if Gloria enters the boundaries of the playground near her house at 8:05AM, the monster materializes on the other side of the globe. Gloria discovers these rules and establishes them for the audience by watching live videos online of the monster and comparing them to her behavior, eventually testing her theory by making distinctive gestures and verifying that the monster mirrors them. This set of rules works: much of the subsequent plot hinges upon both the audience and the characters understanding their functionality. The problem comes when the movie starts asking why.
Resisting the impulse to (over-) explain has long been a hallmark of surrealism, at least when it’s done well. In Colossal’s spiritual cousin, Being John Malkovich, the magical portal leads to a person. By climbing into a closet on the 7 ½ floor of an office building, the characters discover they can enter the actor John Malkovich’s body for fifteen minutes; afterward, they are expelled to the side of the New Jersey turnpike. The workings of the portal are eventually explained in detail (it’s controlled by a company called LesterCorp and used by old men to extend their lives), but, thankfully for the audience, its physics never are. (Leave that kind of storytelling to Interstellar.) Similarly, in Mohsin Hamid’s Exit West, there are magical doors that lead from a war-torn country to new cities in the West. These doors are a fact of the world of the novel, and their existence is never explained.
The Spanish director Luis Buñuel, one of the fathers of the surrealist film movement, is the king of knowing when, and when not, to explain the rules. In The Exterminating Angel (1962), guests become unable to leave after a formal dinner party. They’re trapped until starvation eventually leads to suicide and human sacrifice. Why they are trapped is never explained, the only rule is that they cannot leave, until they can. When the surrealist movement began in 1924, lead by André Breton, a rejection of rational thought was among its primary concerns. Surrealist cinema, developing around the same time, also prioritized irrational, dreamlike, and absurdist imagery.
For a rare example of a contemporary film that truly embraces the spirit of surrealism, look to Yorgos Lanthimos’ 2015 The Lobster (now on Amazon Prime). Buñuel’s fingerprints are all over the film, including the final scene, a direct allusion to Un Chien Andalou (1929). The Lobster is confident enough in its vision (its surreality, you might say), that there’s no need to delve into the motivations or explanations for its rigid, bizarre rules. Much of the film takes place in a grand hotel where guests are turned into animals if they fail to find a mate in 45 days. Why or how this practice was established is not addressed, but it’s understood by everyone to be inflexible. Guests may choose any animal — David (Colin Farrell), has chosen a lobster — but after the procedure, which takes place behind a closed door, the animals remain on the hotel property. The guests could just as easily appear as animals in another location, in their natural habitat. How will David, as a lobster, ever make it to the ocean? Why would anyone select a creature, such as a tropical bird, that could not survive in the cold, wet environs that surround the hotel? Who cares? The film has other concerns. By setting clear (surreal) boundaries, the rules of the film are neatly aligned with the rules of the hotel. The universe of the characters and the universe of the film are the same size.
How will David, as a lobster, ever make it to the ocean? Why would anyone select a creature, such as a tropical bird, that could not survive in the cold, wet environs that surround the hotel? Who cares?
Within these boundaries, the hotel has other rules. Guests can buy more time by shooting so-called “loners”: poncho-wearing singletons that live in the woods behind a hotel. When David escapes to join the loners, the universe expands only slightly during a trip into town establishes that, in this society, it’s illegal to be single. Thus far, the rules of the film have been about societal attitudes and science: in this society, which loathes single people, they have developed a procedure to turn them into animals. And yet in its final third, The Lobster goes further and contorts the very rules of attraction.
Earlier, another guest at the hotel smashed his face against a poolside to induce a nosebleed that would endear him to a woman who suffers from chronic nosebleeds. Initially, one assumes he is desperate and shy and the nosebleed will give him a reason to talk to her. His plan works, they connect, and his deception continues throughout their relationship. When David joins the loners, he takes an oath to remain exactly that: alone. Nevertheless, he and another loner, known only as the “Short-Sighted Woman” (Rachel Weisz), connect because they have something in common; he too is short-sighted. Soon, they are in love. As with the nose-bleeder, the film seems to be mocking the superficial ways people connect in modern romance — scanning online dating profiles looking for someone who likes the same books and music as they do, but rarely evaluating their partner’s deeper values until it’s too late.
When the leader of the loners learns that the pledge has been violated, she blinds the Short-Sighted Woman as punishment. Her relationship with David quickly falls apart. When David prepares to blind himself in the film’s final scene, it becomes horrifically evident that these couples’ reliance on common traits was never satire; it was yet another bizarre rule of this inspired, weird little film. Being changed into a lobster is funny and strange, but David’s self-mutilation is where the film becomes truly avant garde.
The aesthetic and emotional cogency of The Lobster is proof that a film does not need to provide satisfying psychological explanations in order to be successful. On the contrary, The Lobster adamantly denies psychology in favor of its own internal logic. In The New Yorker’s review of Colossal, Richard Brody writes, “Metaphors, if they’re any good, distill complexity not into simplicity but into clarity, bypassing the details of particular situations to find and represent their unifying universal traits and ideas.” That may be true in almost every genre, including realism, fables, fantasy, satire and allegory, but decipherable metaphors have never been the project of surrealism. The Exterminating Angel is a take-down of the upper class, their indulgences and their petty inefficiencies, but what does it mean that the party guests are unable to leave the mansion until they re-create their dinner party scene at the moment they became trapped? What metaphor can be found in the arbitrary forces have governed this whole, sordid affair?
Foolish as it may be to explain metaphor with metaphor: Attempting to find the metaphor in The Exterminating Angel is an endlessly branching path, each possibility worth pursuing. Attempting to find the metaphor in The Lobster is like following a labyrinth that only leads to dead ends. Finding the metaphor in Colossal is like walking a poorly marked trail: it only goes in one direction, but the brightly-colored markings are sporadic and inconsistent.
Colossal is undeniably strange, ambitious and compelling. But that still leaves the question: “Was it any good?” The Verge summed up its response with a quote from The Simpsons: “Short answer, yes with an if; long answer, no with a but.” Despite more than one “if,” Colossal is good; it’s bold, inventive, playful, and arresting, but the film’s logic and metaphors are at once over-articulated and under-developed. A premise as illogical and fascinating as Colossal’s demands restraint — the rules of its world are inherently gripping. What’s interesting is watching how the characters navigate these rules, not the origins of this surreality’s creation. Unfortunately, just where restraint is called for, Vigalondo dives in.
Colossal is good; it’s bold, inventive, playful, and arresting, but the film’s logic and metaphors are at once over-articulated and under-developed.
(Now we’re really getting into spoilers, in case you’re reluctant…)
As revealed in flashbacks that grow subsequently longer, Gloria and her friend Oscar (Jason Sudeikis) entered the park in question 25 years ago on the way to school, at 8:05 AM. The wind took Gloria’s diorama of Seoul into the fenced-off area of the park, which was a construction site at the time. She believes Oscar is going to save her beloved school project, but when he retrieves it, he smashes it instead by stomping all over it like Godzilla. Gloria is furious, and as she watches in anger, lightning strikes them both and links them to their toys: he to a robot and and she to a monster. You can read all of Greek mythology without finding an origin story this literal. And yet the scene is shot confusingly, cut as if Gloria and Oscar are turned into the toys, and framed in such a way that it’s unclear if Gloria conjured the lightning with her anger, or if was some kind of metaphysical coincidence. Vigalondo also completely loses tonal control. The visual motif — darkly lit and half-remembered — is one often used for suppressed trauma. As the Gloria recovered the memory, I actually wondered if, as children, Oscar had molested her.
But Colossal’s fundamental flaw isn’t tonal control. Its real problem is offering one explanation too many, taking the rules one step too far. How did Gloria and Oscar enter a tear in the spacetime continuum to be cosmically connected to a monster and a robot? What does it mean that Gloria is a monster, not a lobster or John Malkovich?
What I would give not to know any of this. Surrealism has a proud history of turning humans into animals. We don’t need to know why Gregor Samsa turned into a cockroach. The more interesting question, the one Kafka takes on, is what Gregor’s going to do when the chief clerk shows up demanding answers. (Yes, The Metamorphosis predates Breton’s Manifestoes, but we can all agree that Kafka was the movement’s progenitor — Surrealism 101.) Colossal’s problem is that it can’t leave well enough alone. It has insists on explaining — taking the rules one step too far.
Rational explanations belong to the world of science-fiction. We’re all fortunate never to learn of some grave sin in Gregor’s past, or the scientific underpinnings of the person-to-animal procedure in The Lobster, or the details of the spell cast on the mansion in The Exterminating Angel or the magical doors in Exit West, or the inner workings of the closet to person portal in Being John Malkovich. The unexplained rules that govern fictional worlds imbue stories with authority, insight and wit. Despite a promising start, those belong to a surreality Colossal never quite manages to find.