I had not planned to write about Sucker Punch, Zack Snyder’s latest offering. After viewing it, I left the theater impressed by its visual brio, but overall underwhelmed. Full of spectacular yet dry set pieces, my one-line was “a big, loud, beautiful mess.” I assigned Snyder points for execution, though none for conception, after which I dismissed Sucker Punch immediately. But then a funny thing happened—I couldn’t stop thinking about it.
An overstuffed CGI mish-mash of steam punk, anime, kung fu flicks and psychological “women’s drama” wrapped in video game tropes, Sucker Punch is set in 1955 and stars Emily Browning as a young woman, nicknamed Baby Doll, who is committed to an institution for the mentally insane after accidentally killing her little sister in an effort to protect her from their evil stepfather. To keep Baby Doll quiet about his unsavory behavior, her stepfather bribes an orderly named Blue (a fine Oscar Isaac) to falsify the recommendation of head psychiatrist Dr. Gorski (Carla Gugino) to have Baby Doll lobotomized by the Doctor (Jon Hamm). It’s all very Tennessee Williams and rendered in an appropriately ominous, washed-out palette.
When Baby Doll is prepped for her procedure, she journeys inside and suddenly we’re not in a mental institution. We are in a highly stylized 1930s bordello where the asylum’s patients are now indentured servants/prostitutes/dancers, orderly Blue is a gangster and the Doctor is the High Roller, for whom Baby Doll’s virginity is being saved. Dr. Gorski has morphed into Madam Gorski, in charge of choreographing the brothel’s show and caring for the girls. We soon learn when Baby Doll dances (to loud, thudding trance rock), the men who watch her become entranced and she again journeys inside to another alternate reality where she is a warrior who dresses like Sailor Moon. She meets a sage, the Wise Man (Scott Glenn), who speaks in mystical self-help aphorisms like “If you stand for nothing, you’ll fall for anything.” To escape her plight, he tells her she will have to retrieve a list of items and complete certain missions, which will be familiar to anyone who has ever played any video game ever made.
Baby Doll returns to the bordello “reality” and gathers partners-in-crime Blondie (a very brunette Vanessa Hudgens), Amber (Jamie Chung), Rocket (Jena Malone) and Sweet Pea (Abbie Cornish), who is Rocket’s sister. Together, they decide to do whatever necessary to escape their imprisonment. During each hypnotic dance from Baby Doll, they will gather the items needed to flee. And during each dance, Baby Doll journeys with the girls, led by the Wise Man, to a new reality where they will gather these items—in one mission, they are killing steam punk Nazi zombies in a futuristic WWII setting to gain a map; in another, they are on a sci-fi mission to retrieve a bomb off a speeding train. All of this is accompanied by astounding visual effects and action sequences that are state of the art (I cannot believe this all wasn’t shot in 3D; for this, Zack, I thank you).
Whoa, that was three big paragraphs of synopsis! And that doesn’t even begin to sum up this film. Let’s tally so far: war movie, sci-fi movie, martial arts movie, video game movie, caper movie, women’s movie, backstage movie, headtrip movie—man, this movie is the moviest movie I’ve seen in a long time.
Sucker Punch is presented in a manner that will cause attentive audiences to distance themselves from the proceedings and know they are in for a theatrical experience. The movie begins with the rising of a theater curtain, a Brechtian nod that signals to the spectator that the proceedings are not reality and should not be perceived as such. Then, the film’s setup is relayed silently in an almost operatic fashion. At close, the credits roll over an elaborate musical number from the cast, something right out of Burlesque or Chicago. If nothing else, considering the myriad visual and storytelling techniques employed, Sucker Punch is a quite an ambitious piece of filmmaking—not that the target audience will likely realize it.
And what about this film’s target audience? I think Snyder, of course, wants Sucker Punch to be seen by everyone, but I also think it’s aimed at a specific group. I think Sucker Punch was made for high school kids and, of course, fanboys—one review referred to it as “Comic Con: The Movie,” as apt a description as I’ve seen. It’s constructed of the detritus of that group’s loves and espouses a philosophy (life will be hard, but you can make it if you try) that’s appropriate and just deep enough for that demographic.
This will be a polarizing film, no doubt. I write not to excuse or defend Sucker Punch. It’s very easy to dismiss this flick as a lurid male fantasy about scantily clad young ladies being forced to perform for men even as they try to escape, a film that leers even as it scolds. But perhaps it’s too easily dismissed as such. The young ladies aren’t all that scantily clad. You’ll see more skin at the beach. And though it’s implied, we actually never see any dirty dancing. True, Snyder is telling a salacious story as properly as he can (he ensures we know Baby Doll is 20 years old—not a woman, not a child), but he should not be faulted for putting his characters in this position. While the young women in the story are in as bad a situation as is possible, drama demands conflict. Remember, characters can’t triumph if they are not oppressed.
As I watched the film, I clucked my tongue at Snyder a few times. I thought maybe the Wise Man should have been a Wise Woman, perhaps Madam Gorski. Surely that would’ve been more empowering. But Madam Gorski is a victim as much as the girls she minds. And the Wise Man is a standard hero’s journey trope, straight outta Compton…I mean, Campbell. I suppose Snyder and co-writer Steve Shibuya could’ve changed that, but let’s be realistic—they weren’t trying to be revolutionary. Also, the fantastic fantasy action scenes were amazing visually, but dramatically uninvolving. They were cool to look at, but continued longer than necessary. When the DVD drops, this flick will definitely find an audience among the stoner crowd. In a different era, it would’ve been the ultimate midnight movie experience.
As I mentioned earlier, I wasn’t blown away by Sucker Punch while watching it; it seems more appealing in memory. But I finally realized why I kept thinking (and thinking) about it. I’m incredulous that Snyder found a way to cram as much stuff into Sucker Punch as he did and have it turn out as well as it did. To paraphrase Kevin Smith’s opinion, I think Snyder definitely swung for the fences. And I admire that in a filmmaker. I think he should be commended for trying to do all that he did, but I think Snyder’s hubris probably did get the best of his good sense. Sucker Punch is a splendid shambles, a fantastic fiasco and, yes, a magnificent mess—hopefully, one I can put behind me now that I’ve written about it.