The common mistake a lot of people make about the kaiju genre is that it’s all about the monsters, about the rock ‘em-sock ‘em fisticuff battles between city-stomping behemoths. Which is why we often hear people complain about movies like the 2014 version of Godzilla, with its majestic ant’s-eye-view images of Big G stomping San Francisco, not having “enough (insert monster here)” — for them any moment that doesn’t have some building crumbling under foot is a moment without some prime demolition-God action. It’s the kind of thing that harks back to childhood fantasies, which is understandable, but it doesn’t work cinematically. There’s something dramatically inert about the idea of a movie that’s nothing but monsters fighting monsters — an ethos of all-orgiastic-destruction-porn-all-the-time can become numbing — but that’s exactly what many people think kaiju movies, like the original 1954 Godzilla, are; they forgot that in between the monster-on-monster spectacles they come for, there’s a lot of filler about, you know, the humans on the ground.
There are those movies, like the Transformers films (which are essentially kaiju films dolled up with a shiny techno sheen), that do provide that thrill of nonstop giant creature action, but those aren’t good films, and they lose the spirit of kaiju that has been established since the original days of Gojira — the idea of monster as metaphor. Fans of those movies, then, are likely to be disappointed by both Colossal, Nacho Vigalondo’s quirkily hilarious take on kaiju, and Shin Godzilla, the first Toho Godzilla movie in a dozen years. Both films feature giant lizards crashing their way through major Asian metropolitan areas — Seoul and Tokyo, respectively — but both also background their main attractions in favor of the humans caught in their wake.
If you thought there wasn’t enough Godzilla in Gareth Edwards’s American reboot, then wait ‘til you see Shin Godzilla, the Japanese board room bureaucracy satire you always wanted. There’s only about fifteen minutes of actual ‘zilla action in all of Shin Godzilla, Hideaki Anno’s soft reboot of the venerable franchise — but Anno makes those fifteen minutes count. This Godzilla is a great one: first we get to see it as a “toddler”, a googly-eyed amphibian slug slithering through the streets, before it evolves into the icon we know. Only this Godzilla looks a bit different — not just meaner, but angrier, with sunken beady eyes hidden behind a scowl of pure moral vengeance, his skin, all blackish scales lit up with rivulets of fiery red light, bearing the look of flowing lava. This isn’t the cuddly G-Man we’ve grown know, but a real monster — a force of destruction, a physical manifestation of reckoning.
If the first Godzilla was obliquely about Japan’s working through the tragedy of Hiroshima, than this one is about the new generations working through Fukushima. Most of the film takes place in nondescript board rooms as over a dozen different characters — politicians and scientists — first try to figure out what the thing is and then how to stop it. There are times when Shin Godzilla, which runs nearly two hours in length, turns into a bit of a slog, but it’s a mostly watchable “destroy-the-monster” procedural. There’s no real central character to focus us, but that just allows us to be a fly on the wall as we watch how the Japanese political system responds to crisis. The satire might be a little lost on American audiences, but there are funny moments and some striking imagery (Anno has a way with negative space) and the always compelling opportunity to watch smart people think there way out of a tough situation. Plus, if you wait patiently enough, there’s Godzilla breathing plumes of flame down city streets.
In Colossal, a giant monster — it looks like a mutant-muppet version of a hammerhead shark — shows up the same time every night in Seoul, causing a swath of destruction before it abruptly disappears. What does that have to do with Gloria (Anne Hathaway), a reckless drunk who is forced to start over again in her small hometown after she’s tossed on the street by her Hugh Grant-ish boyfriend (Dan Stevens). It turns out, in a neat metaphysical twist, that Gloria is the monster. Whenever she stumbles home, drunk, from the bar where childhood classmate Oscar (Jason Sudeikis) gives her a job, Gloria passes through a playground that is essentially a magical mirror of Seoul — and that whatever Gloria does, the monster does too.
Colossal begins like some sort of lost indie relationship comedy from the ‘90s before it adds a monster that, at first, feels like some sort of on-the-nose metaphor for alcoholism — the way it turns you into a monster, destroying everything in your life. Vigalondo, however, is smarter than that. Colossal is very funny, for one thing, with Hathaway excellent as a sort of lighter, slapstickier version of her character from Rachel Getting Married. The monster itself is mostly seen offhandedly, in news reports, doing things that kaiju don’t normally do — like dance awkawardly — and it casts a kicky, funny spell.
But Vigalondo doesn’t just really on the fizziness of his eccentric premise. There’s a twist, involving Sudeikis’ Oscar, that deepens and enriches the movie, turns it into something more. Vigalondo has a lot to say — not just on alcoholism, but on toxic masculinity, male entitlement, and the pitfalls of social media. The beauty of the film, though, is that the director never loses the essential lightness of his material. Vigalondo manages to tackle deep themes and balances tones with a nimble, masterful assuredness, and manages to do so in movie in which a reluctant kaiju bitch slaps a giant robot nemesis.