Zach Snyder made his mark with slick, graphic, borrowed imagery. Following his remake of Dawn of the Dead, he directed 300 and Watchmen, full of grandly cartoonish figures set against simultaneously harsh and vibrant backdrops. In these two films, based on comic books, Snyder showed a talent for transferring stories from page to screen, taking arresting still frames and making them move.
Sucker Punch is Snyder’s first feature based on his own material: the story is his, the script co-written with Steve Shibuya. It begins when a villainous father-figure sends 20-year-old Babydoll (Emily Browning) to an asylum. Here she meets a tough-but-sexy quartet of chicks: like Babydoll, Rocket (Jena Malone), Sweet Pea (Abbie Cornish), Blondie (Vanessa Hudgens), and Amber (Jamie Chung) are all unjustly incarcerated. When they vow to escape together, their ensuing adventures are presented as ongoing fantasy sequences taking place in Babydoll’s imagination.
While Sucker Punch‘s story isn’t based on any one source, Snyder is still more of a borrower than a creator. The film includes ideas from Alice in Wonderland, Return to Oz, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, and Kill Bill, among others. An unnamed wise man (Scott Glenn) offers counsel as a Kung Fu master, and even the musical stings are derivative, as the soundtrack mostly features covers of songs as opposed to the originals. Neither are the visuals always novel. In one sequence, set in a mashed-up version of World War II, Snyder invokes the shaky-camera aesthetic made popular by Paul Greengrass in Green Zone and the Bourne movies, and recently used by Jonathan Liebesman in Battle: Los Angeles.
That’s not to say that there’s nothing original about the film. Each of the fantasy sequences takes place in a different world, so that Snyder and his crew can conjure burning zeppelins flying over bombed-out cities, mechanical soldiers that bleed steam, monorails rocketing towards outer-space cities, and at least three different types of robots. These images are beautiful and powerful, and—unlike those in his comic book films—don’t require a bright color palette to achieve their intense emotional effects. They do a lot with drab.
Snyder’s ability to tell stories through pictures is most notable during a near wordless prologue. The scene is moody, dark, and expressive, and one of the most effective parts of the film. Unfortunately, Snyder introduces that prologue via a few lines of clunky voiceover. Let’s just say, words are not his strength: the narration references angels who are “as fierce as any dragons,” and other juvenile descriptions.
While the rest of the film’s dialogue isn’t quite so overbearing, it does include awkward moments. Dr. Gorski (Carla Gugino), a therapist at the asylum, uses an Eastern European accent straight out of Rocky and Bullwinkle for no express purpose. The wise man speaks in clichés, spouting inspirational catchphrases such as, “You’ve got to stand for something, or you’ll fall for anything.” And repeatedly, the music is similarly trite: Jefferson Airplane’s “White Rabbit” underscores Babydoll’s similarities to Alice, and the Pixies’ “Where Is My Mind” plays after a scene concerning lobotomies.
With so much emphasis on what’s obvious and superficial, it’s not surprising that the film doesn’t delve deeply into characters. Though we follow five girls, two—Amber and Blondie—are mostly props. Sure, they all look striking and sexy while fighting robots and dragons in short skirts and piled-on makeup, sauntering into battle, guns in one hand and samurai swords in the other. Just don’t ask why they’re there or what they’ll do if they ever gain their freedom.
The movie often brushes the girls’ stories aside in favor of major battle sequences. Amped up and exciting, these images have all of the trademarks of Snyder’s tricked-out style, slow motion at times and blended to look like long tracking shots at others. They’re set to loud music. They take place in far-off worlds and they’re incredibly fun. Much as the girls believe, escape into fantasy is its own reward.