Anne Hathaway and Jason Sudeikis in Colossal (Neon)

Sometimes when a filmmaker thinks outside of the box, it invigorates one’s sense of what’s possible in cinema. Take Nacho Vigalondo, who made a film I was a fan of several years ago, Extraterrestrial. In it, a couple wakes up and find that, golly, a giant spaceship is hovering above their city. But the science fiction element is a cover for what turns out to be a juicy story of infidelity and misunderstanding. Vigalondo is clearly engaged with genre cinema as a way of looking at the characters and how, say, an alien invasion does or doesn’t affect how they interact. Sign me up, I would usually say, but in the case of Colossal, he may have set his ambitions a little too high, or misplaced them, or both.

The film starts off promisingly. Anne Hathaway is Gloria, a writer in New York whose screw-ups—mostly involving lots of drinking—costs her a relationship with Tim (Dan Stevens, keeping his British accent for this one), so she decides to go back to the small town she grew up in and where she bumps into an old childhood acquaintance, Oscar (Jason Sudeikis), who runs the local bar. He takes some pity on her and gives her a part-time job there, alongside wonky Garth (the always dependable Tim Blake Nelson) and hunky Joel (Austin Stowell). But one day she wakes up hungover and discovers to her wild astonishment that the night before there was a giant monster that attacked Seoul. How could this happen? Is she somehow involved? Yeah, about that….

Vigalondo’s script is odd as hell, which is welcome, at least at first. The premise for how Gloria is connected to the mayhem in South Korea may be kind of long-winded to explain (I tried telling my wife about it and almost felt silly trying to say how it’s, I think, supposed to work), but the short of it is: there’s a spot in a playground that, for some reason or another, has magical powers. When Gloria steps in it at a certain time of the day (for a few minutes), she steps into another reality—downtown Seoul at the exact time that the monster attacks. And then Sudeikis’s Oscar comes into the picture, along with Garth and Joel, and things become further complicated.

I had seen the trailer some time ago and was sold on the idea of Hathaway playing a little outside of her type. It looked funny, and Colossal is amusing in little fits and starts, but the overall tone is actually meant to be a drama. What goes on with Gloria and especially what unfolds with Oscar, who views Gloria at first with some reverence, is heavily dramatic.

I was fine with this as well, up to a point, as I was heavily impressed by Sudeikis. One usually expects he’ll be good at making awkward, bemused reactions, and I thought he might play the straight man to Hathaway’s wild and wacky Gloria, especially as she tries to explain the absurd phenomena that links her to a South Korean monster. But this is not the case. His character turns dark and brutal around the halfway mark, and the film shifts even more sharply from what could have been a satire of monster movie tropes into a story of people whose misdeeds and mistakes become manifested as a monster and an angry giant robot.

However, Vigalondo doesn’t reveal enough about how bad Gloria’s supposed to be—if she is. She gets messed up, but is she an alcoholic? For a precaution, Gloria stops drinking so she doesn’t stumble in that playground and possibly cause more mayhem. Fine, but how Oscar becomes volatile doesn’t feel setup enough. Yet Sudeikis sells anything that he’s given by a mile, whether Oscar’s full of drunken self-loathing or when he does something that is admirably nuts to prove a point to Gloria’s ex, Tim. Sudeikis is easily the best thing about the movie.

But, again, I can’t stress enough how confused some of the script is. Some of it is simple screenwriting BS—a character suddenly remembers something from 25 years before when it’s convenient to the moment—and yet what’s frustrating is that Vigalondo has a strong visual sense, of the scale of the stomping monster in Seoul (the CGI is decent), and how to create tension and excitement. But the rules he establishes get muddled, and though movie is deep down a character study, the genre part of it needs more work. This is especially felt in the climax, which is full-on confusing for the simple fact that the audience doesn’t know enough on how the goings-on are supposed to fit into the rest of the film.

Emotionally the ending may deliver catharsis for viewers. For me, there was a lot of potential and opportunity that got lost in a story that involves a lot of passive-aggressive interactions, and straight-out aggressive ones, too.

Written and Directed by Nacho Vigalondo
Released by Neon
Spain/Canada. 110 min. Rated R
With Anne Hathaway, Jason Sudeikis, Dan Stevens, Austin Stowell, and Tim Blake Nelson