Politics Foreign Affairs Culture Fellows Program

Mother of All Monsters

Like Godzilla before it, the new film Colossal entertains while shedding harsh light on American adventurism abroad.

There’s something monstrous about living without responsibilities to others. That’s the clearest theme of Colossal, the new film starring Anne Hathaway as Gloria, an alcoholic piecing her life together while discovering a strange connection to a giant monster wreaking havoc in Seoul, South Korea. The film, written and directed by Nacho Vigalondo, uses the kaiju genre (Godzilla and its progeny) to meditate on addiction, self-loathing, and toxic friendships. Yet the film is also telling a geopolitical story with a satiric edge: it’s a giant monster film for the era of drone warfare.

Hathaway’s Gloria is a hard-partying wreck, an unemployed Manhattanite culture writer whom we meet in the process of getting kicked out of her fed-up boyfriend’s apartment. Her lifestyle is portrayed as anything but glamorous; in a running gag, Gloria wakes up after having passed out drunk on some floor and winces at the aches and cricks she’s accrued. With nowhere else to stay, Gloria crashes at her parents’ empty house in her old, empty-ish hometown and repeatedly stumbles, drunk, through a playground at 8:05 am. The news is soon abuzz with stories of a massive reptilian creature wreaking havoc and piling up casualties in Seoul, and Gloria recognizes the monster’s movements as her own. Somehow, when she enters the playground at that exact time, a colossal doppelganger materializes on the other side of the globe and reproduces her teetering steps. The world-shaking consequences of her actions give Gloria, at last, a sense of responsibility. She makes the monster write a message in the dirt of Seoul that doubles as a mantra of guilt and recovery: “I’m sorry. It was a mistake. It won’t happen again.”

Gloria’s frenemy and foil is Oscar (Jason Sudeikis), a childhood acquaintance who offers Gloria a job at his bar, then discovers he has a similar ability—a giant robot manifests in Seoul when he enters the playground—and fewer compunctions about using it. Oscar’s descent into villainy is punctuated with apologies. He fills Gloria’s empty house with furniture, but also pressures her to drink after she quits. Sudeikis marshals all his amiable guy-next-door appeal, then lets that curdle in a cocktail of jealousy and possessiveness. Soon he’s threatening to stomp all over the playground if Gloria defies him, seemingly unconcerned with the human cost to Seoul. A man of Middle America, he’s lost any sense of significance in his life, and is willing to treat other lives as insignificant to get that back.

The film swings from playful banter to life-and-death conflicts and back. Though it is primarily about this duo of characters and their arcs of dysfunction and responsibility, the protagonists’ towering alter egos give the movie global scope and stakes.

Is the location of the monster and robot’s stomping ground a reference to Godzilla’s long history of trashing Asian metropolises? Or is there a political undertone to oversized projections of American power trampling blindly through a Korea?

Obviously, the answer is both. Godzilla emerged from the crater America left in Japan by dropping two atomic bombs; the monster’s skin texture in its 1954 debut was influenced by radiation-scarred survivors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Colossal follows a venerable kaiju tradition, then, in having its mammoth monsters reflect America’s outsized sense of self and influence on the world stage—which often, of course, translates to an outsized ability to damage the world.

The film’s fantasy elements are absurdly specific: two particular people, entering one particular playground, at one particular minute each day, summon monsters half a world away. This invites an allegorical reading rather than an in-universe explanation (indeed, a late flashback to a childhood “origin story” for Gloria and Oscar’s powers is delightfully cryptic). So, when we see two unhappy Americans posturing on a playground and, therefore, toppling buildings on real but invisible foreigners—what are we reminded of?

Our President’s illegal attack on Syria, over-the-top use of the “Mother of all bombs” in Afghanistan, and saber rattling toward North Korea remind us uncomfortably of Oscar’s blind stomping on Seoul. Whatever party is ascendant, satire aimed at America’s colossally reckless foreign policy always seems to hit close to home. America’s political establishment was all-too-excited to applaud the bombing of Syria, and one sensed that many commentators were relieved to be once more dealing with the familiar: a President bypassing Congress to bomb the Middle East. But like any addict, America needs to realize that a behavior’s being habitual does not make it normal.

The film’s remotely-piloted kaiju are designed to look fun and toy-like. But Gloria’s growth in the film suggests that taking real responsibility, both as individuals and as nations, means putting away childish things.

Alexi Sargeant is assistant editor of First Things.