colossal and little shop of horrors

(This post contains major spoilers from Colossal.)

Nacho Vigalondo’s new film Colossal begins with a novel high concept: what if a kaiju-style monster attacking innocent civilians was the manifestation of a random, unknowing stranger thousands of miles away? Anne Hathaway portrays that random stranger, whose growing awareness that her drunken exploits are inadvertently causing mayhem in South Korea causes a change in her lifestyle. But as the film progresses, Vigalondo reveals the wild card up his sleeve: this is less a monster movie and more a character study about the so-called “nice guy” in town (Jason Sudeikis) becoming unable and confronting the failure of his hapless dreams and choosing to wreak havoc instead. In this way, Colossal is a modern, dark flip-side to another monster-movie pastiche, the musical adaptation of Little Shop of Horrors.

little shop of horrors

The Movies

The painfully nerdy Seymour Krelborn (Rick Moranis) is a dreamer at heart: he wants to escape the Skid Row slums of New York City and run off with Audrey (Ellen Greene), the girl-next-door type who’s also his co-worker at a flower shop. Audrey is sweet and fetching, but dating a scummy dentist with no hope of getting out herself. Only when Seymour allows himself to harness the power of an extraterrestrial plant he found right after a solar eclipse does he begin to get what he want.

Audrey has always harbored feelings for him, and feels happy when her cruel boyfriend “vanishes” (i.e., is eaten by the plant). After vanquishing the murderous plant, they run away together to a happy ending. Even if director Frank Oz had his way and the original, bleaker ending to Little Shop of Horrors had been released (with Seymour and Audrey being eaten themselves), the core romance is idealization at its fullest.

The opposite is true in Colossal; Hathaway’s character Gloria is reckless to her core, and Oscar, the boy who knew her when they were kids, is a local bar owner hiding his own wild streak. Oscar envies that Gloria left their small town, but she only did so to write for online magazines (a recent controversy made her jobless; being dumped by her British boyfriend sent her packing back home). In the early going, the byplay between Gloria and Oscar falls into predictable patterns: she may be immediately allured by a blandly attractive barfly, but the flirtatious banter she shares with Oscar suggests they may wind up together, kaiju or not. And yet, where Little Shop of Horrors zigs, Colossal zags sharply.

When Gloria realizes she is inexplicably making a mysterious monster materialize in Seoul while tromping around a neighborhood playground, she lets Oscar and his buddies know so they can watch what happens. It’s helpful, primarily because Gloria’s emotional baggage manifests in black-out-drunk alcoholism; multiple times, Oscar has to fill her in on things she missed or forgot during her stupor. At a key moment at the playground, a drunk Gloria slips and falls while “being” the monster.

When she wakes up, she’s soberly terrified at the thought of having killed countless people in Seoul, only to find out Oscar has a similar power: when he steps into the playground, a brightly colored, but no less massive robot appears in Seoul. This is the film’s turning point: it’s the first time Gloria realizes how much damage her drunkenness can create, inspiring her to back away from the nearest bottle of Pabst Blue Ribbon; it’s also the clearest inkling we get that Oscar is only nice in theory, not execution.

colossal monster

The Nice Guys

Oscar, like Seymour, is stuck in a small town and feels hopelessly trapped. Oscar, like Seymour, has been given a supernatural gift he can use to manipulate and attack other people. Oscar, unlike Seymour, never backs away from the brink. The more power Oscar gets, the crueler he gets; he pushes away one of his oldest friends, Garth (Tim Blake Nelson, very good in a small role), by insinuating he’s a coke addict, right before bullying Gloria into drinking a beer after a few days of being a teetotaler. By the time we see an important flashback, in which Vigalondo depicts how Gloria and Oscar were first “turned” into the monster and robot, it’s clear that Oscar’s initial presentation as the nice guy who stayed home to take over the family business belies the reality that he’s a sociopath.

Sudeikis, to his credit, stands toe to toe with Hathaway (who is remarkable) throughout Colossal. When we first meet Oscar, he’s as affable and snarky, much like his usual comedic performances in movies like We’re the Millers and his time on Saturday Night Live. Once Oscar reveals his true, inebriated colors, it’s unexpected and unsettling, no less so than in a scene where Gloria’s ex-boyfriend (Dan Stevens) returns due to concern for her.

Oscar, who rarely raises his voice or sounds angry, describes the most irresponsible thing he could do in a bar (setting off a massive firecracker) before doing so and engulfing the bar in flames. The extent to which Oscar wants control over Gloria – less because he has a genuine romantic affinity for her, as she realizes in the third act – is a nasty extension of the nice-guy myth. Seymour from Little Shop of Horrors is a precursor to characters like Oscar, someone who obsesses over an idealized version of a woman (in that film, to the point where he names a killer plant after her). Seymour is just lucky enough that his love is reciprocated.

Colossal is vastly more interested in its characters than another high-concept monster movie might be. Its fresh, modern take on Godzilla-like mythic figures flourishes because of Vigalondo’s clever, surprising script, and the fierce performances from Anne Hathaway and Jason Sudeikis. Hathaway’s Gloria is a spiritual sister to her award-nominated turn in Rachel Getting Married, but Sudeikis’ Oscar is a bigger surprise, an MRA-style “nice guy” whose outward charm hides the monster underneath. The nice-guy myth can play out in charming fashion, as in Little Shop of Horrors with the predictably wonderful Rick Moranis, but the ways that it plays out in Colossal are shocking and a breath of fresh air.

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