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The opening weekend of the 2016 Toronto International Film Festival is stalked by a pack of gargantuan metaphor-monsters: Liam Neeson’s wisdom-dispensing tree in A Monster Calls and a deformed man’s fairy-tale avatar in Johannes Nyholm’s The Giant. Then there are the kaiju-movie troublemakers in Nacho Vigalondo’s Colossal, an alien beast and Transformer-ish robot that materialize in Seoul for a few minutes each night to terrify and puzzle townspeople. The least of the three films but certainly not without its pleasures, this oddball outing owes most of its commercial appeal to the surprising presence of two A-list Americans, Anne Hathaway and Jason Sudeikis, whose characters find themselves in the middle of this phenomenon. Vigalondo’s cultish track record will help with genre devotees who might worry Colossal is a rom-com in disguise, but a huge fanboy embrace is unlikely for this odd romp through childhood trauma.
Hathaway plays Gloria, an alcoholic New Yorker whose boyfriend (Dan Stevens) is fed up with her out-all-night benders. He throws her out of his luxe pad; penniless, she retreats to her family’s now-abandoned small-town home. There she crosses paths with Oscar (Sudeikis), a childhood friend now running his family’s bar. Perfect place for Gloria to get her act together, right? Soon she’s both a waitress and a patron, lingering every night for after-hours drinking sessions with Oscar and his buddies (Tim Blake Nelson and Austin Stowell).
Gloria awakens one afternoon to find the world in a panic: TV news is full of footage of a giant monster that showed up in Seoul, made some weird hand gestures and vanished in a cloud of lightning. It appears again the next night at the same time, 8:05, and soon Gloria realizes that these appearances sync up to the moments she has stumbled home on the other side of the world, straggling drunkenly through an empty playground. The monster mirrors her every movement while she’s in the sandbox there. After coming to terms with this, she demonstrates it to her drinking buddies. Then the giant robot appears.
In his Extraterrestrial, which played TIFF in 2011, Vigalondo staged a massive alien visitation of Earth only to focus on the handful of human lives it disrupted. Charming and funny, that film explored its premise’s comic possibilities more successfully than this one, which is amused to watch a drunk klutz play Godzilla but doesn’t follow through on either the physical or thematic possibilities of the conceit. Instead, Vigalondo develops some darker human-scale themes, revealing Oscar’s nasty, jealous side and hinting at the forgotten trauma that set all this in motion.
Don’t get your hopes up: This monster’s origin makes less sense than a third-rate superhero’s, and the idea that nobody involved remembers the events is a huge head-scratcher. But suspension of disbelief is already a must in a film which claims the residents of Seoul would just stick around at home despite nightly visitations from monsters who threaten to crush them.
Though he’s clearly more interested in his human characters than the mayhem in South Korea, Vigalondo’s screenplay only sketches them out, making it hard for Hathaway and Sudeikis to justify some of their dumber and more outrageous behavior. Few viewers will enjoy seeing Sudeikis set his own bar on fire, for instance, and only slightly more of them will believe it. Still, the cast’s likability keeps us on board, watching the sometimes baffling behavior onscreen just like those on the streets of Seoul, who gape up at a monster in horror but can’t make themselves flee to the suburbs.
Venue: Toronto International Film Festival (Vanguard)
Production company: Voltage, Brightlight Pictures, Sayaka Producciones
Cast: Anne Hathaway, Jason Sudeikis, Dan Stevens, Austin Stowell, Tim Blake Nelson
Director-screenwriter: Nacho Vigalondo
Producers: Nahikari Ipiña, Nicolas Chartier, Zev Foreman, Dominic Rustam, Russell Levine, Shawn Williamson
Executive producers: Jonathan Deckter, Justin Bursch, Garrett Basch, Nacho Vigalondo, Chris Lytton, Lee Jea Woo, Choi Pyung Ho
Director of photography: Eric Kress
Production designer: Sue Chan
Costume designer: Antoinette Messam
Editors: Ben Baudhuin, Luke Doolan
Composer: Bear McCreary
Casting director: Maureen Webb
Not rated, 109 minutes
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