“Colossal,” Anne Hathaway’s new movie, is the type of movie that could have easily been terrible.
It’s a high-concept drama about female self-empowerment and the dangers of alcoholism. Hathaway plays a woman who — after struggling with her career, boyfriend, and drinking too much — moves back to her hometown in upstate New York, only to learn that she has a mental link with a kaijū monster terrorizing Seoul.
A high-concept story is, basically, a story with a “what if” scenario that can be pitched in just a few words. It’s been a popular genre for decades, usually because it turns a science fiction or fantasy conceit into a story that’s easy to understand and imparts some kind of morality, like Rod Serling’s “Twilight Zone.”
In the late 1980s and early 1990s, some of the best, most thoughtful comedies were high-concept films, including “Big” (a teenager who wishing to be an adult suddenly becomes one) and “Groundhog Day” (a weatherman lives the same day on repeat). They became more ambitious, producing some of the most important movies in Hollywood, like “Jurassic Park” (what if dinosaurs were alive today?) and “Toy Story” (what if toys could talk?).
By the late 1990s and early 2000s, some of the better high-concept movies became increasingly creative, but the time period also began to produce some films that dated poorly. 1997 had “Face/Off” (what if an FBI agent swapped faces with a criminal?”) and 2004 had “The Incredibles” (what goes on in a family of undercover superheros?). The same period also included creepy fare like “50 First Dates” (a man falls in love with a woman with short-term memory loss) and eye-rollers like “Snakes on a Plane” (snakes are on a plane).
By now, high-concept movies are almost entirely awful comedies. In the past decade, we’ve had to witness “The Tooth Fairy” (Dwayne Johnson pretends to be the tooth fairy), “Bedtime Stories” (Adam Sandler tells his kids stories that come true), and the regrettable “Jack and Jill” (Adam Sandler plays his own twin, who is a woman).
That’s where “Colossal” comes in.
“Colossal” is by no means a perfect movie. The middle third, especially, is uneven, teetering in tone from absurdist dark comedy to threatening home-invasion thriller. But it is, for the most part, very good.
Anne Hathaway, once again, knocks it out of the park, and Jason Sudeikis demonstrates himself to be a shockingly effective dramatic actor. The ending, too, is a crowd-pleaser that nicely wraps the whole story together.
And more importantly, “Colossal” shows what a high-concept movie can do. Its silly-sounding premise, where a young woman has a mental link with a monster on the other side of the world that allows her to control it — it’s perfect for high jinks. And it is indeed occasionally funny, in a dark, people-are-getting-stomped-on kind of way.
But at the same time, writer-director Nacho Vigalondo’s film explores serious issues, like the consequences of alcoholism and the bad decisions we make. That sounds mundane if the movie didn’t have a monster that destroys Seoul in it.
Hopefully, “Colossal” signals the beginning of a new stage in the high-concept genre, where it can be restored to its former glory. It’s certainly time.