If my 14-year-old self – with his marked preference for explosion heavy movies with lots of guns and hot chicks shooting them – were to jump in a time machine and come forward to 2011, he would probably proclaim Sucker Punch the most totally awesome movie ever made. My 35-year-old self – with his marked preference for explosion heavy movies with lots of guns and hot chicks shooting them – would have been inclined to agree, at least based solely on the trailer, which was equal parts thrilling, titillating and confounding. Promising a highly stylized, highly explosive genre mashup made out of mistmatched pieces of histrionic melodrama, comic book action, video game tropes, and musicals (and you know, hot chicks shooting guns) the two minute teaser did indeed make Sucker Punch look like the most totally awesome movie ever made.
The end product delivers on this promise… sort of… well, up to a point. It’s hard to tell. Sometimes it’s all of those things I listed, sometimes it’s none, the film’s messy, bombastic, kitchen sink approach is both its saving grace and its curse. Though certainly visually and stylistically ambitious, Sucker Punch is so lacking in any unifying thread of coherence that all its bluster reduces to discordance. It’s also just a terribly lazy – the characters are undeveloped, the plot nonexistent, the action sequences stand almost isolated from everything else, and there’s little or no emotional investment in anyone or anything.
Emily Browning, Abbie Cornish, Jena Malone, Vanessa Hudgens, Jamie Chung, Carla Gugino, Oscar Issac, Jon Hamm
(US DVD: 28 Jun 2011)
And yet, the film is compulsively watchable. In fact, its hypersaturated, ridiculous overstylization is downright hypnotic, to the point where it’s hard to see what or where the actual movie is beneath all its surface chaos, or what it wants to be, or if it’s anything at all but a hollow bauble. It steamrolls over all such quibbles, rendering them moot, and in the end, if you fall under its spell, you just don’t care that you don’t care, or that the movie itself doesn’t care.
In the opening (and best) sequence of the film (a mostly silent montage set to a cover version of “Sweet Dreams”, the first of many unsubtle song choices) we are introduced to Babydoll (the utterly beguiling Emily Browning) who, after the death of her mother and murder of her sister, is delivered by her wicked, murderous stepfather to a dilapidated, dreary asylum for troubled young girls. There’s a palpable storybook, fairytale feel to this prologue, hinting at an enticing direction which, sadly, the film never capitalizes on.
Presided over by the sinister, sadistic head warden Blue (Oscar Issac), the asylum is a Victorian horror show – run down, filthy, with no apparent mandate to rehabilitate. The stepfather bribes Blue to “take care” of Babydoll, and she is slated to be lobotomized a few days after arrival. During that short time, she befriends some of the other girls, and is tretaed by the resident psychologist, Doctor Gorski (a criminally underused Carla Gugino), but it’s no matter. Baby’s fate is sealed.
Just before the visiting doctor (Jon Hamm) drops the hammer on the pick that will hack out Babydoll’s mind the film, and Baby, vanish down the rabbit hole into an alternate reality where the asylum is reimagined as a brothel/burlesque house, and where all previous inmates appear as new characters. Still imprisoned (Blue is now the pimp presiding over what is basically a whorehouse prison, Gorski now the house madame, Hamm a wealthy high roller coming to the brothel to claim Baby’s virginity) Baby conceives of a bold plan to escape, enlisting the help of the other girls (all of whom sport Kill Bill-esque nicknames, like Sweetpea, or Rocket, or Blondie).
Baby’s plan to break out somehow hinges on her dancing provocatively and hypnotically to various repurposed pop songs. The great joke of Sucker Punch, though, is that we never actually see Baby dancing, because once she starts moving to the music she triggers yet another, third layer of reality, and down we go again.
Here, Baby and her friends are now a gun toting, sword wielding gang of bad ass chicks in skimpy combat/fetish gear who have to battle waves of brutal enemies in different fantastical settings (clockwork zombie Nazi soldiers in bombed out trenches! Dragons and orcs in a medieval castle! Robots and bomb laden bullet trains on a distant planet!) in order to gather some totemic item that will aid them in escaping. Each item exists in this third world and above in the other two layers (e.g., a map, or a knife). Once they collect everything, they will have everything they need to break free.
Now, don’t ask me how any of this all works. I get the top layer – there’s a certain “Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” trope of Baby imagining a whole other life in a different world in the moment before her mind is snuffed out. But the part where she dances and calls forth another layer of reality, within this secondary level… well, that I don’t know. Nor do I care.
The thing is, within the world (or worlds within worlds) of the movie, it sort of makes sense, at least conceptually. Logistically, it’s a shambles (compare to Inception, which laid out how all its worlds interlock explicitly – too explicitly) – nothing actually lines up, and there’s no real direct correspondence at all between the action in, say, the third layer, and what is supposedly simultaneously transpiring in the second. Presumably, the girls are fetching these items in each layer simultaneously, when their targets are all under Baby’s thrall – or something. But you really aren’t supposed to be thinking this hard about the film – or at all.
But if I were, and if I were generous, and wanted to do a close critical appraisal of the film, and try to read something deep into it, I’d say something like: “Sucker Punch runs on an engine of seeming vs. being; of illusion vs. reality; of dreams within dreams, and nested layers of realities within realities, and the lines where they bleed into each other”. Or “Sucker Punch is all movies, and it is a commentary on all movies, on the dreams and escape and even salvation that movies provide, and how we lose our identities and reimagine them in the Platonic caves of the theater”…. Or some such nonsense.
But this facile reading would be giving the equally facile movie far too much credit, and more critical thought than it probably warrants (again, cf. Inception, an equally shallow film trading in mock profundity). In fact, I’m pretty certain that one’s enjoyment and appreciation of Sucker Punch rises directly with a decrease in any thought put into it. It’s purely all surface, no matter how much it wants to believe it’s plumbing great psychological depths, and works best if you check your brain at the door and let it just wash all over you in all its brash, stupid excess.