Day to day life in a world where giant monsters go on rampages.
COLOSSAL is coming (in some markets it is out right now!) Get your tickets here!
There’s a scene in the trailer for Nacho Vigalondo’s COLOSSAL that has stuck with me. It’s nighttime, and everyone at Oscar’s bar is drinking heavily, their eyes glued to the big screen above. But they aren’t watching the World Series. There’s no big UFC tournament going on. They haven’t come to Oscar’s to have a good time. They’ve come to try and cope with the news that a giant monster is rampaging through Seoul, South Korea.
“Don’t you get that tingle?” Oscar (Jason Sudeikis) asks Gloria (Anne Hathaway). “When you know you’re watching something that’s going to change the course of history?” As it happens, Gloria’s relationship with the situation is a bit complicated (given that she is inadvertently puppeteering the monster), but Gloria, Oscar, and their fellow barflies all find themselves dealing with the same reality: the world faces unprecedented cataclysm, but until the monster stomps on them specifically, their lives are still their own.
COLOSSAL is part of a recent wave of kaiju/giant monster movies that all ask the same questions, to one extent or another: “How do we live with this? What can we do?” They vary in focus and importance by movie, but they’re always present, and they’re some of my favorite parts of the genre.
Guillermo del Toro’s PACIFIC RIM uses the fact that life keeps going despite calamity to boost its world building. By the time the film takes place, Kaiju attacks have become an established fact of human life, so the Kaiju and their mechanical foes the Jaegars are assimilated into popular culture (and by extension, global capitalism), splitting the image of the beasts from the beasts themselves. Kaiju and Jaeger action figures, like Barbie and the initial incarnation of GI Joe, reframe reality and culture for specific presentation to kids. Kaiju and Jaeger sneakers repurpose childhood iconography for adult fashion. Late night comics make awful, groan-worthy jokes with Kaiju costumes – comedy can be a powerful tool for coping – and religious zealots devote themselves to the Kaiju for salvation.
“How do we live with this?” In PACIFIC RIM, humanity tries to make the kaiju normal. Life around monsters means adapting to the monsters.
Gareth Edwards’ GODZILLA focuses on the sheer scale of the King of the Monsters and his nemeses MUTOs – massive unidentified terrestrial organisms – who outclass humanity in every way. Godzilla and the MUTOs cannot be fought with conventional weapons, and even if they could, the monsters are too busy with their own conflict to worry about humanity. Edwards’ Godzilla may be uniquely benevolent amongst the monsters in these pictures, but his primary concern is killing the MUTOs. The MUTOs just want to hatch their eggs and continue their lifecycle, oblivious to the fact that they would be wiping out humanity.
This time, the answer to “What can we do?” becomes “Do what you can.” Elle (Elizabeth Olsen) cares for her patients through the evacuation. Her husband Ford (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) carries out his duties as a military explosives technician. And Serizawa, a scientist who has devoted his life to the study of Godzilla and creatures like him (Ken Wantanabe), puts his expertise to use as best he can. By GODZILLA's end, humanity has survived, in part thanks to a combination of people acknowledging their limitations in the face of overwhelming force and deliberately seeking new ways to get their assorted jobs done.
Hideaki Anno’s SHIN GODZILLA takes a similar but distinct approach. Shin Godzilla is a terrifying, immensely destructive force, one that initially catches the Japanese government flat-footed. In the SHIN GODZILLA narrative, Japanese bureaucracy is messy, frustrating and at times truly baffling. (Hiroki Hasegawa’s heroic deputy chief cabinet secretary Rando Yaguchi accumulates an astonishing number of formal titles over the course of the picture – so many that they ultimately take up most of the screen – as new agencies are created in response to the evolving nature of Shin Godzilla’s threat.) As labyrinthine as that bureaucracy may be, it is staffed by people who give a damn. And their care does not stop with their efforts to bring down Shin Godzilla. It manifests in little things, like making sure a co-worker has had a chance to sleep, and that everyone has a meal and a change of clothes even during the worst of the rampage.
In other words, humanity triumphs in SHIN GODZILLA in part because they remember that they are human. Everyone has their limits, their biases and their blind spots, and in an organization as complicated as the government of a major nation, it is inevitable that people will clash. But, as SHIN GODZILLA stresses, those conflicts are not end-all be-all. Cooperation is not just essential for Japan’s immediate survival, but for the inevitable life that must come after Shin Godzilla.
And then there’s COLOSSAL itself. Given the extreme geographical distance between the picture’s protagonists and Seoul, COLOSSAL must approach its questions differently. Once Gloria realizes the extent of her connection to the monster, she begins asking herself the hard questions about her drinking and her behavior: “How can I live with this? What do I do?”
COLOSSAL and its peers understand that monsters are real, but they aren’t the only part of reality by any means. That’s a big part of what makes these recent movies so much fun to explore.
The author of this post, Justin Harrison, extends his thanks to Hope Harrison, his mom, for her invaluable help in editing this article.