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Monster movies have endured in part because they provide a template for tapping into the anxieties of the moment. “Godzilla: King of the Monsters” may not have mustered profound social commentary, but giant hideous beasts wreaking havoc on civilization tap into deep-seated existential dread on autopilot. “Kong: Skull Island” took the mounting ineptitude of American military to task. And the latest version of “The Invisible Man” would have been jarring if it didn’t work in some kind of #MeToo component.
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Yet “Colossal” manages to play off monster movie expectations by reinventing their purpose, finding a new kind of timeliness in an old-fashioned formula. Writer-director Nacho Vigalondo’s remarkable character study takes one of the more ludicrous tropes of the monster movie tradition — giant kaiju monsters — and positions them in an intimate context so unlike anything else in monster-movie history that it inhabits a unique category of its own.
With Anne Hathaway delivering one of her most poignant and vulnerable performances, “Colossal” functions as a literal study of alcoholism and small-town malaise within a mind-boggling sci-fi conceit. Hathaway is Gloria, a hard-partying trainwreck who returns to her sleepy New England hometown after her boyfriend dumps her, hoping to find time to write. Instead, she finds time to drink, reuniting with her old childhood pal Oscar (a wily Jason Sudeikis), who runs the local pub. After some messy nights out, Gloria wakes up to find that a reptilian monstrosity went on a tear in South Korea at the exact moment that she’d been wandering the neighborhood park — and its destructive movements mimicked her own.
Gloria’s involuntary ability to control a kaiju from abroad defies explanation, and doesn’t really need one. The movie’s internal logic quickly extends to the abusive men in her life, particularly Oscar, as the simmering tensions between them flit between ordinary frustrations and sprawling, effects-driven showdowns on the other side of the planet. Vigalondo, whose penchant for loopy storytelling logic goes back to his winning time-travel comedy “Timecrimes,” excels at turning “Colossal” into a complex study of one woman engaged in a messy battle to take control of her life even as the circumstances surrounding her are patently ridiculous. It’s a story that invites audiences to enter into its dopey wavelength in order to access the emotional substance hiding within. Needless to say, no other kaiju movie in history comes close to such sophistication (or at least none come to mind; this writer’s hardly an expert).
Some viewers may find the kooky shift between real-world frustrations and hokey special effects too dissonant to make its genuine themes stick. But how many routine dramedies about young people trying to put their lives together must we endure before it becomes clear that ingenuity leads the day? More than a mere monster movie, “Colossal” feels like a treatise on how to keep telling worthwhile stories, even if we’ve heard them before.
In the years since “Colossal” broke out at the 2016 Toronto International Film Festival, Vigalondo has yet to make another ambitious movie on the same scale. However, his feature-length entry for Blumhouse’s “Into the Dark” series, “Pooka!”, has a similar balance between surreal comic circumstances and genuine struggles, but “Colossal” provides the best window into the talents of a filmmaker attuned to an audience that demands escapism, and won’t consider more options that seem too complex. Vigalondo’s work maintains a silly-profound trajectory that tricks you into exploring its depths. He charges into ludicrous scenarios, acknowledges them as such, then finds the humanity lurking within. At a time loaded with disturbing and unexpected twists that may determine the future of civilization, that work is more timely than ever.
“Colossal” is now streaming on Hulu.
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