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Film companies, being the savvy and cost-conscious entities that they are, know the best ways to spend their money when it comes to things like marketing. They know that there’s not much value in advertising a reserved and thoughtful costume drama in front of a Vin Diesel movie, or showing the trailer for a gut-churning survival horror ahead of the latest Pixar offering. This is why you routinely get trailers for films of the same genre as the one you’ve actually paid to see (and the ‘These trailers have been specially chosen for this film’ message in some cinemas). When this isn’t this case, it’s a sign that either the advertising people have dropped the ball somewhat, or a film has come along that they really have no idea how to cope with. For the same movie to be accompanied by trailers for Wonder Woman, Baby Driver, My Cousin Rachel, and War for the Planet of the Apes is a clear sign of a system on the verge of meltdown, and a pretty good indicator of just how weird Nacho Vigalondo’s Colossal really is.

This is one of those films that feels like it started out as part of a bet – or at least a conversation running something along the lines of ‘I don’t think you could possibly write a script which combines elements of any two random old movies’/’I bet I could’/’Go on then, pick two names out of this bag’/’All right… oh’/’Which ones did you get?’/‘Manchester by the Sea and Terror of Mechagodzilla’/‘Ha hah! I win!’/’No hang on, give me a chance…’ For this is pretty much what Colossal is, only much, much odder than it sounds.

Anne Hathaway plays Gloria, a young unemployed writer struggling with a bit of a drink problem. The sympathy of her boyfriend (Dan Stevens) is finally exhausted and he kicks her out, forcing her to return to her home in small-town America. Here she encounters her old school friend Oscar (Jason Sudeikis) and his buddies, and manages to land a job waitressing in Oscar’s bar (this is probably not the best idea for someone contending with incipient alcoholism, but she is pretty much out of options).

Gloria’s personal issues soon become less of a priority as the world is shocked by the appearance in Seoul, South Korea, of a skyscraper-sized reptilian monster, which proceeds to meander about leaving a trail of devastation and panic in its wake, before disappearing into thin air. The authorities rush to respond, people struggle to take in the news that the world is so much stranger than they had thought… and Gloria slowly begins to get a suspicion that she may have some involvement with all of this.

Yes, it eventually transpires that if Gloria is in a certain spot in town at a particular time of day, an enormous monster will materialise in Korea and mirror her every action. This is enough to give a girl pause, as you might imagine. But what should she do with this remarkable new power? Should she do anything at all with it? And where does the ability come from?

If you think all that sounds like an intensely weird premise, I should inform you that Colossal is another of those movies that bucks the current trend and doesn’t put the entire plot in the trailer. More than this, there are great swathes of story and character development that aren’t even hinted at – the film is much, much odder than even the brief synopsis I’ve given might suggest.

For a movie genre to be deconstructed and played with is normally a sign it is in robustly good health, and so you might conclude that the existence of Colossal suggests that all is well with the giant monster or kaiju movie. Well, maybe (the recent King Kong movie was pretty good, after all), but I think it may just be that this is a genre everyone knows, or thinks they know. There are no particularly clever allusions or references here for fans of the form to spot – I suspect the reason the giant monster shows up in Korea rather than Japan is just to avoid a lawsuit from Toho (the film-makers drew the ire of the legendary Japanese studio for using images of Godzilla without permission in very early production materials), although the appearance of the kaiju (specifically the horns) seems to me to recall the titular monster in Pulgasari, the notorious North Korean communist kaiju film.  There isn’t even a proper monster battle, really.

Instead, the monster movie angle seems to be there mainly because of the sheer ‘You what?!?’ value of mashing it up with an offbeat indie-ish comedy-drama, which is what the rest of the film initially appears to be. It is an intriguingly bizarre premise for a film, if nothing else.

That Colossal in the end doesn’t really hang together is therefore a shame: I like bonkers movies, and this one certainly qualifies, but in the end it just doesn’t work, despite being well-directed and performed. The sheer unevenness of tone is certainly an issue, for one thing: when the film attempts to mix more serious moments into what started off as a very offbeat comedy, you’re left genuinely unsure as to how you’re supposed to react – are these beats intended sincerely, or as just another piece of deadpan black humour? At any given moment, is it actually meant to be funny or not?

Some of the trouble is more basic, though, and derives from the most basic elements of the storytelling. In order to achieve that lurching mid-movie shift in tone and emphasis, and make it a genuine surprise for the audience, the story requires several main characters to either engage in behaviour which seems strikingly incongruous, given how they’ve previously been presented, or suddenly undergo radical changes in personality, both of which feel rather implausible.

I know, I know: we’re discussing a film in which a young woman magically acquires an enormous reptilian doppelganger in Korea, and somehow I’m complaining that it’s the character development which is the most implausible thing in the movie. But there you go – it only goes to prove that you should never neglect the carpentry.

I suppose the film’s lack of a strong central metaphor is also an issue – if it is indeed that alcohol can unwittingly turn people into monsters, it’s not really followed through with quite enough thoroughness, and the result is a movie which just feels like a collision of various strange ideas, many of them interesting and amusing, but not quite working together as a coherent whole. The simple fact that films as bizarre as Colossal are still being made is surely a hopeful one, though.

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For a long time there was a disquieting rumour that the directorial career of Luc Besson had some kind of self-imposed limit: Besson having decided as a young man that he was only going to do a certain number of movies and then quit the business. Thankfully (for I always find Besson’s movies to be interesting and entertaining), this idea seems to have been abandoned, and indeed – after a fairly long stretch between 1999 and 2010 where his only credits were for the oddball Angel-A and a couple of children’s films – Besson seems to be back in the saddle with something like his old regularity.

As a writer and producer Besson is known for a seemingly-endless stream of efficiently barmy action movies, but his work as a director seems to be moving in a more challenging direction. No film is actually easy to make well, but a narrative-driven genre movie is certainly a less daunting prospect than a metaphysical examination of the human condition. For me it is telling that one of Besson’s more recent producing credits is for the environmentalist documentary Home, which certainly leans in this direction, and it may perhaps give us a different perspective on his new movie Lucy.

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The film opens somewhat unexpectedly with some cells replicating via the wonders of CGI, followed by an equally CGI ape-creature going about its business in the ancient past. But from here we go to much more familiar territory for Besson-watchers, as we meet Lucy (Scarlett Johansson), a young American woman apparently studying in Taipei, although it has to be said neither script nor performance are really convincing on this point. Lucy’s sleazy boyfriend co-opts her into making a delivery to Mr Jang (Choi Min-Sik), yet another of those terrifying Asian gang-lords who are such a frequent figure of the Besson canon. The delivery turns out to be of a mysterious new drug, and Jang expresses his gratitude by having a packet of the stuff surgically implanted into Lucy’s gut so she can carry it through customs for him.

However, Jang’s staff are not quite up to speed on the plan and prior to taking Lucy to the airport decide to have a bit of fun with her. There is a scuffle and the packet bursts, flooding her system with the chemical, the main function of which is to massively increase brain function. The film would have us believe that most people only use 10% of their brains, but in Lucy’s case this figure begins to spike dramatically.

According to Lucy, using more than 20% of your brain actually gives you superpowers: the ability to disregard pain and fear, in the first place, but then fearsome bodily co-ordination, the power to manipulate electromagnetic fields, and then more and more cool stuff as time goes by. There is always the danger your body will spectacularly disintegrate, apparently, but the cool stuff surely makes this risk worthwhile. Lucy decides to make use of her new powers by flying off to Paris, where she can find leading brain expert Professor Norman (Morgan Freeman). Always assuming Mr Jang doesn’t catch up with her first, of course.

There may be some elements of Daniel Keyes’ Flowers for Algernon in this scenario (Everyperson has their intellect massively boosted), but the most recognisable elements of this film are resolutely old-school Besson: the ass-kicking heroine, the Asian gangsters, the world-weary French cops who show up towards the end. On the other hand, the film rockets off into some very weird areas unlike anything Besson’s really touched since The Fifth Element, and he himself has described his ambitions in making it as a mixture of Leon, Inception, and 2001: A Space Odyssey. So perhaps the polarised reviews and general bemusement which have greeted Lucy are understandable.

Some people have treated Lucy as either a straight thriller or a superhero movie with philosophical ideas above its station, but I think this really does it a bit of a disservice. Right from the start the film is rather adventurously directed, with the opening sequence – Lucy being taken by the gangsters – intercut with thematically-relevant stock footage of cheetahs hunting a gazelle. Even after this, the plot about Lucy and Mr Jang is interspersed with scenes of Morgan Freeman delivering a preposterous bafflegab lecture, which most often consists of his narration playing over cod-profound images of wildlife and nature. It’s like a strange mash-up of Nikita with Koyaanisqatsi or Samsara (indeed, footage from Samsara turns up) – but then that’s really what Lucy is.

That said, I think it’s a mistake to dismiss Lucy as a routine thriller with dollops of added pretension: I got the distinct sense that Luc Besson wanted to deliver a film about the nature of being human and our place in the world, but decided to make it a bit more commercial by adding a few gun-toting gangsters into the mix. The problem with this approach, of course, is that it’s utterly ridiculous – at times Lucy plays like an absurd deadpan comedy. It’s hard to express just how wacko Lucy gets in its third act without spoiling the plot, but it is waaaaay out there.

Certainly, as an action thriller Lucy isn’t going to supplant Leon in anyone’s top ten, though this is mainly a function of the plot rather than anything else: Lucy’s powers develop so rapidly that the other characters lose the ability to realistically threaten her very quickly, though for form’s sake there is a massive gun-battle near the end of the film. This was a bit disappointing as I would have enjoyed seeing Johansson take out a few more vanloads of goons.

On the other hand, Scarlett Johansson gives a seriously impressive performance – rather better than the film strictly deserves, if we’re honest. Her fear and distress in the opening sequences (I feel obliged to mention that these do border on the misogynistic, but I expect Besson would defend them by saying they just increase the impact of Lucy’s ultimate transformation and empowerment) are replaced by a superhuman detachment and intelligence, but there’s also a moment where she tries to describe her expanded perceptions to her mother which is genuinely moving. Perhaps most impressive is her ability to deliver some of Besson’s vaultingly silly and pretentious dialogue with an impressively straight face – though this is also true of Morgan Freeman, and the scenes near the end where the two of them earnestly debate the nature of reality while a full-scale gang war rages in the next room are cherishable.

As you can probably tell, I did enjoy Lucy rather a lot: to be honest, the combination of highbrow philosophical SF and old-school action movie tropes doesn’t quite work, and the movie grows increasingly absurd as it goes on, but I couldn’t help but enjoy its ambition. It is an incredibly ambitious film, conceptually, and if it occasionally doesn’t hit the targets it sets itself there is a lot of entertainment to be had along the way. And you have to admire Luc Besson’s drive to keep doing new things – this certainly isn’t his best film ever, but it’s probably his craziest, and that’s an excellent second-best.

 

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