Here’s a movie plot: a big drinker and fully fledged party animal comes home after a bender, and is kicked out by their partner. After returning to their hometown they re-ignite a friendship with their old school friend, who runs a bar. So far, so Seth Rogen. Another plot: in Seoul, South Korea, a giant Kaiju (monster) rises from nowhere and begins kicking the holy crap out of buildings, callously killing millions, tearing down buildings, roaring and the like, before suddenly, a robot shows up, and the world thinks they are allies. So far, so Pacific Rim. Here’s the plot twist: they’re the same movie.
From director Nacho Vigalondo, whose previous work includes the so-so Open Windows with former adult star Sasha Grey, this film boasts a very small cast of indie-types: Anne Hathaway, Dan Stevens, Tim Blake Nelson, Jason Sudeikis and Austin Stowell, in a film that shares a strange genetic familial bond with some of the more well-known big monster movies. Hathaway shines as Gloria, a washed up writer who spends her nights drinking to excess, blacking out, hurting herself and damaging the world around her. Hathaway has been a good performer for a very long time, despite some criticisms launched at her. It’s impressive just how well she can do different genres, from comedy films, to action, and here she manages to hold the screen even when the film gets a little mental in places.
Also as good as her is Sudeikis, probably best known for his work in broader comedies, but in his role as former school friend Oscar he manages to find depth in a role which could have become something of an easy bad-guy archetype, and this is where the film works best. The film itself is less an action film and more a meditation of addictions, and abuse cycles.
In Gloria we have someone who is dependent on alcohol, with little regard to how it engulfs her. We see scenes of her stumbling in blackout drunk at eight in the morning, getting caught up in her own lies as she tries to pull the wool of boyfriend Dan Stevens eyes, and having to essentially squat in her parent’s empty old house. One drink and she’s a different person; she’s forthwright, she doesn’t think, she’s flirty, she’s fun, but she lacks a core that actually helps people warm to her.
Juxtapose that with Oscar, a man who from the outset doesn’t seem at all like a bad dude. He’s someone who is thrilled to see his old childhood friend again, offers her free drinks because he can tell she’s hit it rough, and offers to give her a spare TV and sofa to make her home a little more liveable. From him we see an element of “well clearly he’s the right guy to be with” (especially considering Dan Stevens’ Tim is just a judgemental butthole, right?). Well, in time, so too does the drink change Oscar, who goes from likeable bar owner who gives Gloria a job, to the obsessive, abusive, rude abrasive type.
But among all this, the film is much more clever than just “blame it on the alcohol”. Yes, Hathaway is playing a drunk, but when she tries to give up the booze (after a frisky encounter that brings things into a frosty perspective), we start to see that she is someone who has a sense of right and wrong and is going through a bad time, and ultimately, that drink is holding her down. But in Oscar, we have someone who is filled with hate and loathing, and is actually not someone who changes on drink, he’s someone who stops covering up who he is.
So where the bloody hell do the monsters come into it? Well, plot cronk ahoy as Hathaway realises that if she enters the local playground at 8:05 US time, then a giant frog-like monster appears in Seoul and does everything she does. Naturally, there’s some fun as she performs dances for Oscar, and his two friends, but when the military start firing back, it hurts her. Then, we discover that Oscar has a similar thing going on where he becomes a giant robot in South Korea.
The film continues to play these ideas off each other, with one person seeing that all this power to wreak havoc is awful, and millions of innocents could be lost, while the other uses this as a looming threat to keep someone under their thumb. As heavy as it sounds, the film never fumbles the mark, showing that people who become angry drunks are not to be trusted even when sober, and that you don’t have to drink to be an abusive person.
The film might be billed as a comedy, but it’s more of a tense indie-drama with a science fiction element. Vigalondo handles the two elements well, and manages to wring tension from something as mundane as a conversation about toilet habits. More than that, he turns a forty year old man stomping around a playground, having hit a woman in the face, into one perhaps of the most harrowing film sequences ever. We see Hathaway screaming in pain, while the soundtrack is filled with destruction and screams, so we need not see the carnage that the big robot is wreaking on Korea, because Hathaway’s masterful performance does it for us.
As a monster romping blockbuster, people may find it a little long and saggy. As an indie-drama, some might be put off by the strange science fiction element. As a long metaphor for cycles of abuse, toxic relationships and depths of addiction it’s one of the most interesting films to be released this year so far.