There is something that has always been alarming about arguably the most common counterpoint to the criticism of human characters being drastically underwritten in kaiju movies. Whenever a review or comment sheds light on this, the go-to defense is something along the lines of the movie(s) “not being about the humans.” Furthermore, tell me how many times you’ve heard the argument of kaiju movies “just being movies about monsters destroying stuff.”
On a certain level, it’s a simple defense that makes sense when looking at the state of monster movies, or more specifically kaiju movies. The draw when going to see any of these films does not necessarily fall to the plight of the human characters. A typical trailer for a kaiju movie is pinpointed on…well, the kaiju itself, and it clearly needs to be. How can you get people to the movie theater if they’re not promised insane kaiju carnage? What would a kaiju movie be if it focused on the humanity being affected by the monster’s path of destruction?
It would be the original Godzilla. The OG King Kong. Mothra. Shin Godzilla. Kong: Skull Island. Many more kaiju movies than you might realize.
Kaiju stories at their most effective when there are added stakes that extend beyond simple monster mayhem. The destruction can only be engaging for so long before the plight of the humans, us, takes centerstage. It is not impossible to write a story that focuses purely on the beasts without any human interaction, but the criticism that human characters shouldn’t matter in these stories would dismiss the very core of kaiju films: the humanity.
King Kong isn’t simply a giant gorilla, but one that has been angered on multiple occasions by nosy humans attempting to exploit the beast for their own gain. Godzilla is a metaphor for the fear of nuclear war and its catastrophic effects on post-Hiroshima Japan. Mothra is seen as a heroic kaiju who is extremely protective of the natives on her island. Humanity is a key component of kaiju stories, so it should absolutely be taken into consideration when watching them, even if you only desire to see monsters causing carnage or engaging in one-on-one battles with other monsters.
Perhaps this is the root behind the lackluster release of Nacho Vigalondo’s own take on a kaiju film, Colossal.
Starring Anne Hathaway and Jason Sudeikis, Colossal was something of an adventurous project for the Oscar-winning actress, who was looking to develop a story that allowed her to liberate her artistic side at a time when she felt as though she was in “an artistic no man’s land.” It was here where she came across the script for Colossal and before you know it, this international creature feature was released by Neon in 2016 to positive reviews, yet less than $5 million worldwide.
If you ever saw the official trailer before its release, you would be forgiven for feeling duped out of what you expected. The trailer lays out the general idea of the story: Anne Hathaway plays a party girl who gets kicked out by her boyfriend and forced to move back to her hometown. In the middle of her trying to regain control of her life is a giant monster that starts manifesting out of thin air in Seoul and acting erratically. She soon discovers that the monster’s appearance is mysteriously caused by her as she now tries to navigate a potential global crisis.
Vigalondo’s kaiju dramedy promises a bizarre monster romp that sees Anne Hathaway prancing around on a playground while a kaiju terrorizes South Korea and in a sense, we get plenty of that here. What the trailer doesn’t show you is that it’s a kaiju battle movie…but the kaijus are just two humans with a bone to pick with each other. Jason Sudeikis’s character is revealed to have this effect as well, manifesting a giant robot in the same area in Seoul, though his intentions are far more sinister.
In short, it’s a kaiju movie about humans.
As mentioned before, humans tend to get a bad rap in kaiju movies as audiences come to see giant monsters lay waste to whatever obstacles that happen to be in their path. Godzilla 2014 still receives criticism for showcasing the humans far more than the radioactive beast, leading to Godzilla vs. Kong becoming the success story that it has turned into even in the middle of a global pandemic. We see plenty of the two titans laying the smackdown on each other, meaning that the draws of the film deliver what audiences desire.
So when a film like Colossal promises kaiju mayhem and the end result is two alcoholics pushing each other on a playground, it is safe to say that not everybody will come out feeling satisfied. Critical praise can only mean so much if audience approval matches the enthusiasm, but the film’s misleading premise coupled with an already limited release places Colossal in the vast sea of original ideas being rejected by audiences.
Colossal may not have entirely delivered on the carnage and epic battles, but what it instead brought to the spotlight was a bold and ambitious melding of genres to create a familiar story in new territory. Keeping with the tradition of the monster acting as an extended allegory for something in the real-world, the monsters in Vigalondo’s dramedy represent the festering anger residing within ourselves.
“There is a monster in all of us” serves as the perfect tagline for this film, pointing not just to the obvious connection of Anne Hathaway manifesting a giant monster in another part of the world, but our own lingering anger and how easy it can be to loosen inhibitions and let it take you over entirely. We all have the capacity to potentially do awful things, but our learned filters prevent many of us from going through with those thoughts. But the anger can seep out on its own without our conscious knowledge.
Gloria, Hathaway’s character, is on a path to self-destruction, partying her life away with no clear plans on what to do for the future. Though her intentions are not malicious, her actions nonetheless cause a ripple effect that extends to her own boyfriend growing resentful of her. Even when she figures out that the playground in her hometown is the connection between her and the Seoul monster, her first instinct is to joke around with her friends and laugh off an already serious situation.
Even if it was not her intention to do so, Gloria’s childish behavior results in the deaths of hundreds of South Koreans, hammering home the idea of her destructive behavior extending far beyond herself. However, Oscar (Jason Sudeikis) differs from this in that his destructive behavior is not only completely intentional on his behalf, it becomes something he revels in it upon the realization that he can manifest a robot through the playground as well.
Oscar’s connection is more closely connected with the allegory of anger, with the man himself being a ball of hatred that is actively antagonistic towards the idea of progress or even happiness. A childhood friend of Gloria, Oscar is somebody who was never content on living a small-town and overly uneventful life while Gloria was able to move to New York. He takes out his frustrations on the friends around him, subtly at first with passive-aggressive remarks revealing his annoyance at their quirks, before Gloria’s return to their hometown and the playground cut him loose from his inhibitions.
The subsequent “battles” between the monster and the robot is a result of Gloria and Oscar’s destructive tendencies reaching a boiling point, but whereas Gloria realizes the error of her mistakes, Oscar gleefully pushes forward with the knowledge that his actions technically label him a dangerous international terrorist. The self-hatred is the heart of the kaiju battles in Colossal and it’s quite stunning that a seemingly silly sequence of Sudeikis bombastically stomping around on a children’s playground is the film’s furthest descent into depraved kaiju destruction.
But that is the strength of Colossal: finding an inventive way to present a common story with unpredictably high stakes. A woman coming to terms with her own destructive behavior and putting an end to somebody else’s similar path becomes a grand scale battle, essentially encouraging us to become invested in the plight of small-town folks confronting their personal demons. The best kaiju films have the most human elements to them and a woman powering through the control of her abusive ex-friend is about as human as a monster mash movie can be.
A kaiju film should not automatically be praised for having decent human characters among the rubble. These movies are only as fun and engaging as the humans that bear witness to these larger-than-life monsters roaming around. Colossal stands as an example of the kaiju genre cleverly exploring human concepts to a successful degree. The film may not have made enough money during its initial run, but its placement on Hulu is the next chance for audiences to branch out and discover something they may be able to connect with.
Even if you are somebody who doesn’t care for Colossal, merely recognizing the film’s artistic intentions can do well in helping similar projects get funded for the future. Maybe Vigalondo just isn’t your style, but that doesn’t mean that other filmmakers can’t take the kaiju genre and transform their story into another hybrid project that could have a better chance at breaking out. We are often told to vote with our wallets and if the success of Godzilla vs. Kong is any indication, we are more than ready to break voting turnout when need be. It’s those votes that can make or break the next great kaiju original.
Colossal may not have been that but five years later, its originality is still something to be admired.