Critical Empathy in Nacho Vigalondo’s Colossal

NOTE: The discussion of Colossal below contains some plot spoilers.

Literature and film have always been, for me and for so many others, training in empathy.  We learn to walk in the shoes of those we’ve never met, to feel as they might feel.  But part of that training is to read the signs of human meanness and venality and call them out.  In my adolescence and young adulthood, I was often blind to such everyday cruelty.  Back in high school, a good friend told me I saw the world through rose-colored glasses.  I lacked the cultural awareness that one gains from reading, watching, and listening to people whose experiences were different from my own.  But an opportunity to encounter such experiences arose in a recent ArtsQuest screening and talkback for Nacho Vigalondo’s 2017 sci-fi/fantasy comedy, Colossal. 

The film both challenges our capacity for empathy and warns us of the consequences of its absence.  The main character, a thirty-something woman named Gloria (Anne Hathaway), has fallen into a self-destructive pattern; she has lost her magazine writing job and spends every day on a bender with a group of alcoholic friends.  Her boyfriend kicks her out his apartment, fed up with her behavior. We might be inclined to sympathize with her pain, but Gloria’s frequent selfish choices can make it difficult.   When she moves back to her abandoned childhood home, however, her old childhood friend Oscar (Jason Sudeikis) does take pity on her and provides her with a part-time job and some furniture.  What first appears to be an empathetic gesture turns out to be an exercise in manipulation and domination, as Oscar prevents other men from dating her and punishes Gloria when she defies him. When Gloria’s ex-boyfriend Tim (Dan Stevens) visits her hometown, expressing concern about her well-being, we quickly see that he is more interested in feeling superior to her, judging her for her job, her friendships, and her struggle with addiction. 

Colossal heightens the commentary on empathy through a giant monster metaphor.  When Gloria stands in a particular hometown playground at a specific time of day, she manifests as a kaiju (a giant lizard monster) in downtown Seoul, its movements mirroring her own.  Oscar also appears as a giant robot in the same part of Seoul when he stands in that playground.  The robot metaphor proves apt, as he demonstrates none of the fundamental human concern for the lives of the Koreans he endangers.  They simply become bargaining chips that he uses to manipulate Gloria into accepting his dubious charity.  Gloria’s ultimate fight against Oscar becomes much larger than a bid for independence and self-worth; she asserts her empathy for strangers across the world.

That need for an empathy borne out of awareness and critical thinking revealed itself in our conversation at the Frank Banko Alehouse Cinemas following a viewing of the film.  A small audience of young women shared my enthusiasm for both the film’s action and the main character’s rejection of the sexist men in her life.  They admitted, however, that they were surprised that Oscar, in particular, turned out to be so cruel.  It was not until he became more overtly violent that they realized what kind of man he was.  Having long abandoned those rose-colored glasses from adolescence, I was ready for Oscar to demonstrate his monstrous manipulation.

Although Colossal eventually makes Oscar’s monstrosity evident (and literal), it also invites us to witness the more subtle forms of resentment and buried rage, such as his embittered recollection to Gloria that she was a better writer than he was.  Gloria herself realizes the source of his rage later in the film and remarks, “You hate yourself.”  The audience wasn’t ready to make that connection—Oscar’s self-loathing as the source of his violence and his need to control others; the film, however, illustrates this towards the end by showing Gloria’s memory of young Oscar trashing their school diorama projects after she had won first prize.  His inability to deal with his that self-hatred leads to a series of sadistic relationships with the people around him.

I write this reflection on the film and talkback not simply to boast about some wisdom I’ve accrued in middle age.  I also mean to acknowledge my own insecurities and self-doubt, the kinds that lead people to outward violence or self-destruction.  Sometimes I share the resentments of Oscar or the aimlessness of Gloria.  Colossal offers not a clear road map to solve such problems, but an acknowledgment of their weight and the fantasy of combatting them.  After such denigration and manipulation from the men in her life, Gloria needs the experience of acting gigantic to avoid feeling so small.  Colossal makes that point most emphatically by the film’s conclusion, but it’s important to give it credit for its often understated expression.  The film teaches us not to abandon faith in humanity, but to be more conscious of the far too ordinary ways that men mistreat women.  Such awareness helps women recognize patterns of abuse, helps men avoid repeating them, and helps everyone develop empathy based in a greater understanding of one another.

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