When there’s a monster on the loose, all manner of behaviour becomes reasonable. You can check under the bed each night, commandeer a vehicle or wield firearms: a state of emergency demands different rules. Such is the pleasing, unlawful logic of a creature feature.
This is why Colossal, from Nacho Vigalondo, is such a strange beast: for the most part it’s entirely quotidian. Gloria (Anne Hathaway) is an unemployed writer who has to move home, cut back on the booze and try to get her life together. Her story is simple, believable, the stuff of everyday life for anyone who’s been made redundant or started to enjoy their third glass of post-work tipple just a little too much. But then a space opens up in the film, an otherworldly dimension in which we’re thrown the curveball of a giant Godzilla-like monster terrorising Seoul in a way that is somehow intimately linked to Gloria’s own behaviour. Is the monster a metaphor for Gloria’s drinking? A way to dramatise the unwitting impact she has on other people’s lives? The film keeps you guessing admirably – it certainly defied my attempts to suss it out mid-watch – but expecting a monster-as-metaphor isn’t itself beyond the realms of reasonableness. When it comes to children’s films we almost take it for granted.
J.J. Abrams’ Super 8, for example, was praised by some for delivering a child-friendly blockbuster with real heart. Other critics were a little unimpressed that, in giving the nod to Spielberg, we discover a giant alien monster that may well just operate as a, shall we say, metaphor for the adult problems which the child-protagonists have to deal with at home. It’s not that Super 8 is desperately unsubtle, but perhaps it’s reasonable to baulk at such an obvious mechanism lurking at the heart of a film when that mechanism has come to seem distinctly cliché. Other films make a virtue of dispensing with the hidden metaphor malarky, of making it clear that we’re in the fantasy-realm of a child’s making. Where The Wild Things Are and, more recently, A Monster Calls are both strong examples of how powerful storytelling can be when a childlike capacity for metaphor is taken for granted. After all, when children use their imagination to make something material, they are only foiled on the level of objective reality: and as discussed above, in the pleasing logic of a creature feature, no one really wants it.
Monsters work well in kids’ films because young children, psychologically speaking, operate at a level where the boundaries between imagination and reality are so supple that monsters are more than just a metaphor for the upsetting things they face in life. Children’s monsters really are their monsters: the powerlessness they face in a world they don’t understand, their lack of control over their own lives become manifest in the creature that terrifies them. Children use fantasy in the same manner as adults, often disclosing their emotions or anxieties in the very attempt to hide them. An adult will talk about ‘battling’ cancer or addiction at the safe remove of language’s verbal substitutions – hoping to draw strength from language when, deep down, they’re scared of how fragile a human being is in the final analysis.
This is why Colossal’s blend of romantic comedy, romantic drama and out-of-control monster action is such an enticing concept. Most of the really great romantic films – the ones that mix humour with heartbreak, that are bittersweet and life-affirming all at the same time – are the ones which don’t hesitate to draw from the deep brackish well of human frailty. Annie Hall, for all its moments of hilarity, for all its sense of worldly wisdom about the madness of love, is still a film about neuroticism, anxiety, and – lurking somewhere in the original screenplay, before Ralph Rosenblum’s heroic editorial work on the film – anhedonic (or Ann Hedonic) depression. David O. Russell’s Silver Linings Playbook was similarly direct about everyday insanity: it’s the story of two people who have struggled with depression finding solace in each other’s company. Such a description would suit a tacky romance, dripping with sentiment, or perhaps a sonorous arthouse production set somewhere remote, rural and endlessly filmable.
Silver Linings Playbook is a romantic comedy about people who suffer with bipolar disorder and poor impulse control that is funnier than any number of screwball knockarounds. It’s funny because it handles mental illness alongside its debt to screwball repartee and other conventions of romantic drama. If every great love story carries some sort of monster at its core – be it jealousy, impractical co-dependence or the plain nightmare of having to love someone in spite of everything that’s wrong with them (and you) – it would be fantastic to see a film that took the same level of openness toward monsters as a work of children’s fiction; to see Mr. and Mrs. Smith without the silly contrivance of their being assassins. (in The Twits, Roald Dahl was able to tell children what adults apparently aren’t ready to handle – that grown-ups who have been married too long sometimes want to kill one another).
Colossal isn’t quite a monster movie that lays things out on the table about romantic relationships and the difficulties of love: it’s more a light drama about hidden resentment and the murky stuff of people’s pasts, with a bit of kaiju madness thrown in for good measure. But somewhere, hiding in the shadows, there’s a monster movie with the butterflies of romance in its stomach waiting to make itself known. To quote a line from Thomas Pynchon in Gravity’s Rainbow: “As film critic Mitchell Prettyplace puts it in his definitive 18-volume study of King Kong, ‘You know, he did love her, folks’.”
Colossal is in UK cinemas from this Friday. A Monster Calls is out now on DVD and Digital HD.