Feministing Films: In “Colossal,” Misogyny is the Real Monster

“Colossal” is a monster movie about real monsters: men who hate women.

They are human monsters, so redemption is not impossible, but this movie, written and directed by Nacho Vigalondo, like countless monster movies before it, isn’t interested in redemption — neither for the monsters nor the heroine, an out-of-work writer aptly called Gloria and played both smartly and archetypically by Anne Hathaway. Instead, “Colossal” negotiates the confusions and contradictions that are caught up in the world of a deeply flawed person — Gloria is careless, untethered, selfish, and an alcoholic — who is deeply wronged. The healing the film offers isn’t a forward march to recovery, but the open thrust of confrontation.

The film begins in Seoul, Korea. A little girl and her mother search outside at night for the girl’s lost doll. The wind is howling, and the sky cracks with thunder. The mother calls her daughter back, saying they’ll look again in the morning, but the little girl is insistent, and finally finds her doll, a few paces ahead in the grass. When she looks up, a gigantic, hulking mass of a monster is towering over the city, directly in front of her.

The film then travels across the globe to New York City, where Gloria is stumbling into an immaculate apartment after a night of partying. Her boyfriend, Tim, who owns the place, is sitting at a spotless granite countertop, upset. Gloria’s skipped out on their evening plans, and now she blatantly lies about why, saying she fell asleep at a friend’s house. Tim has had enough, and after telling Gloria off, kicks her out. She won’t be living off of him anymore; she’ll have to finally get her shit together, alone. Gloria keeps lying, unable to process being cut off. The tragedy displayed in the scene isn’t the end of a relationship, but the beginning of a more general isolation. After Tim leaves for work, having informed a shellshocked Gloria that her things are packed and ready to go, a group of her friends arrive in the apartment with alcohol, firing up for round two. She stays seated, staring into space, somehow no more or less present than she was before. By the next scene, she’s left New York and returned to her anonymous hometown in the midwest.

Once there, she reunites with a childhood acquaintance, Oscar, who seems to know a lot about her and her writing career. He’s hometown friendly and conveniently attractive, but Gloria barely takes notice of him. Oscar works to charm her, and takes her to the bar he owns, an inheritance, later delivering secondhand furniture to her parent’s empty house, where she sleeps on a deflated air mattress. Meanwhile, the monster in Seoul has been destroying property and killing people, stomping around the city with no real direction or particular malice; it’s just careless. Naturally, we learn that the monster is being controlled by Gloria, or, Gloria is the monster. And not long after that, we learn that Oscar has his own monster, a robot, that appears in Seoul along with Gloria’s monster when the two step onto the mulch of the neighborhood playground. It’s a wild premise, but one that is ambitious enough to foreground social issues with both humor and heft.

Soon, Oscar’s crush on Gloria reveals itself to be an obsession. When she realizes that multiple people were killed when she drunkenly exhibited her ability to control the monster to Oscar and his buddies, Gloria desperately tries to take control of her life in order to prevent more deaths. But she’s thwarted by Oscar’s cruelty and misogyny. He uses his knowledge of the incredible damage the two can cause as their monster selves to blackmail her into staying in town. Eventually, he physically abuses her, and uses the threat of further abuse both to her and others to keep her around.  When Tim arrives in town, ready to whisk Gloria away from the middle of nowhere and back to the city, he first scorns her, criticizing her decision to take a job at Oscar’s bar and live at home. He’s a snotty, condescending kind of abuser — one who places a set of expectations onto Gloria, not out of love or generosity, but as a form of control.

Thankfully, “Colossal” quickly abandons the notion that Gloria is the true cause of the destruction around and beyond her. Of course, it’s ridiculous to think that Gloria’s alcoholism is actually the cause of multiple deaths in Seoul. But the character’s willingness to take responsibility for those deaths, despite a lack of proximity to them, speaks more generally to how women tend to be socialized. Our wretchedness is not only an affront to ourselves, but to the entire world; men hurt others, fail, relapse, and retain both their charm and freedom from obligation. Women do the same and destroy an entire city — we are taught to feel not only responsible for the consequences of our actions, but the consequences of the consequences of the consequences of the actions of someone we may or may not have hurt. “Colossal” doesn’t reinforce this imbalance, but stares incredulously at it, and challenges it. Gloria does not find absolution in reforming herself, but in (no spoilers) unloading her grief.  The film also doesn’t offer an explanation for Gloria’s alcoholism, unemployment, or irresponsible behavior. We’re asked to accept her without justification and champion her without guarantee. In “Colossal,” the heroine is not redeemed but emboldened, and it makes the revenge that much sweeter.

Header image via Slate.com.

Cassie da Costa is a writer who focuses on moving image and performance. She's based in Brooklyn and works as a member of The New Yorker's editorial staff while also producing the magazine's video podcast, The Front Row, featuring film critic Richard Brody.

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