[25 March 2011]
Sucker Punch’s tagline is, “Close your eyes. Open your mind. You will be unprepared.” While it might be a waste of money to watch the film with your eyes closed, you get the drift. Despite the odd wording (wouldn’t “nothing can prepare you” have read better?) Sucker Punch’s PR people want you to believe that this is going to be something you haven’t seen before. This is a bold claim, 120 years into cinematic history.
Sucker Punch is more a pastiche than a narrative film, a homage to comic books, Japanimation, fantasy novels, and old Hollywood. Whether it’s any good or not depends entirely on what you bring to the theater. Pure entertainment? Sure. Will it leave you asking any question besides, “Where did we park the car?” Probably not. However, like zealots debating the authenticity of Barack Obama’s birth certificate Sucker Punch won’t disappoint the Zack Snyder faithful, but like Birthers, there will be no arguing with them.
The movie starts with the death of a mother. She has two daughters, one of which is the film’s heroine, Baby Doll, played by Emily Browning. Browning is a talented Australian actor who in person proves to be intelligent and insightful, but in Sucker Punch she rarely speaks. She and her sister are left to defend themselves against their evil stepfather, who like almost all the males portrayed in the film is cartoonishly evil. As in comic book narratives, no explanation is given for their destructive, black hearts. They are simply evil incarnate. As if to prove this, the stepfather brutally kills her sister after attempting to sexually assault Baby Doll, who barely escapes.
Baby Doll is found by police and committed to an all-girl mental institution by her stepfather who has convinced everyone she was the one who actually killed her sister. He pays off an enterprising but evil male orderly, played by Oscar Isaac, to sign Baby Doll up for an eventual lobotomy. It’s in the institution where the action happens. It’s there that she meets her four co-stars, Abby Cornish, Jena Malone, Jamie Chung and cell phone camera parvenu Vanessa Hudgens.
As a form of therapy the girls are made to act out their demons on a literal stage, overseen by the institution’s psychiatrist, played by Carla Gugino. It’s through Baby Doll’s imagination while she is undertaking this therapy that the rest of the story is told. Until the very end when returned jarringly to reality, the audience is set loose in a kaleidoscopic world of sex-slave brothels, samurai swords, zombie Nazis, fire-breathing dragons, medieval knights, Vietnam War relics, sci-fi robots, and trips to other planets.
In this fantasy world instead of being in a mental institution, Baby Doll is a dancer in a brothel, and each of the other characters has their own dream-world dopelganger. Echoing Salome’s Dance of the Seven Veils, or the terrible Indian goddess Kali dancing to bring about the end of the world, each of the dances she performs propels her into a battle sequence, where she and her companions must find one of four objects which will facilitate their escape from the asylum.
The film’s director, Zack Snyder, alludes to the dance when he says, “There are two sucker punches in the movie, I think. The first one is that, you know, if you have pre-conceived ideas about what you think the movie is or what the idea is or how movies are put together and all of that, then that is kind of what the sucker punch is all about. Then, on the other hand, I think the literal translation of the title is that there is a device in the movie that acts like a sucker punch, that literally is like a sucker punch if you will, and it propels and it takes the story in a circle.”
Zack Snyder, sitting next to his wife Deborah in a hotel room in Beverly Hills, looks disheveled and tired. He’s been through a lot in the past few months, from controversy over the follow-up to his acclaimed 300 (he won’t be directing it) to reported problems with the upcoming Superman movie’s storyline, which is just two months away from production. His signature 5 o’clock shadow is pushing toward beard status.
Sucker Punch is his first original film, something that he underplays by saying, “I feel the same pressure that I do with anything. Just like like I did with Watchmen, or 300, or any of the movies I’ve made. Once I sort of say, ‘this is the movie I’m making,’ it really becomes personal to me anyway. In some ways I feel more personal about Watchmen than anything else, even more maybe than Sucker Punch, because it’s a thing that I loved for so long.”
Some of his ambivalence may be due to the fact that after the film was finished and submitted to the MPAA problems began to surface. “I made the movie with the intention of it being PG-13. I just had no idea how far you’d have to go to keep it PG-13,” Snyder says. His wife and producer, Deborah Snyder agrees, “It took us five tries.” Zack continues, “So, you know, I don’t know how they could come down that hard on us, but they came down pretty hard on us I think. I was like, I can’t, when we were struggling with it I was like, I can’t have this movie be Rated R. Personally I can’t, because this would be the worst R ever, in history, right? Because it’s R for like leering and weirdness, which is just a bad R. If I went to it and saw it I would say, ‘This is fucking… where is my R rated shit?’
Snyder continues, “Because Debbie can tell you, I can make an R movie if I have to. If I want to make an R rated movie it’s going to be Rated R. You know, I’m like adamant about that. But, in this case, part of the reason we decided to make it PG-13 was that I was afraid that the idea would get lost in the violence, in the sex and violence, because I would’ve just gone for it. It would’ve got pretty frickin’ dark pretty fast. Not to say that it’s not dark now as it is but it would’ve been way worse. I can’t even begin to imagine what it would’ve been like. It would’ve been awesome.”
While it’s not out of the ordinary for a film to change in the cutting room, or even change significantly, it’s relatively rare for entire concepts that were in the original script to be shot and then done away with. Regrettably, due to the MPAA or otherwise, this is case with Sucker Punch. The original concept called for dance routines for each character, five in all plus a group number, but in the final cut only one has survived and it has been relegated to the final credits. This results in a film with a subconscious. There is a palpable feeling of something missing and several scenes where extras are standing in the background waiting for something to happen which tragically for them, never will.
When pre-production on the film began and Marius De Vries, music director of Moulin Rouge, was hired, in addition to choreographer Paul Becker, most journalists assumed the film would be part musical. Becker was not present at the film’s junket in Los Angeles, but during a 14 March 2011 interview he described the Sucker Punch’s dance sequences, apparently unaware that they would not be in the final film, “Each female lead in the film has a persona and objective. We meshed the objective and persona of each character to the tone and concept of each dance. Because the film takes place in a brothel it calls for these huge production numbers.”
Those interviewed characterized the absence of the “huge production numbers” as part of the creative process, not the wasting of precious shooting time and budget dollars. Snyder explained the omissions by saying, “It undercuts the seriousness of the movie. What I wanted to do was create this sequence where you would look at this scene and go, ‘Wow, it’s fun to be in this club. I guess the girls are being prostituted, but it’s still fun!’ But then the sequence ends with the girls crying and you’re like, ‘Oh, fuck. I’m a jerk.’”
Jena Malone, who played Rocket, said, “I did a sci-fi nurse zombie pole dance. Look for the director’s cut, I think you’ll be satisfied with that and so shall we. We all worked really hard on these dances that we got to do and they’re very fulfilling.” Carla Gugino reacted by saying, “They [the dance sequences] really were very key. I think down the road you’ll eventually see it in the body of the movie.” Carla’s counterpart, Oscar Isaac said, “At the time it [our dance] was, as scripted, in the middle of the film and uh, as we worked on it, it would start to reveal all these levels of what our relationship may have been.”
Music producer Marius De Vries offered the clearest explanation for the removal of the dance sequences when he said, “We had an awful lot of possible strategies. Zack wanted to be adventurous and be able to experiment and didn’t want to commit up front to one particular way of doing this [...] There were songs that were actually shot as performance pieces because we wanted to see how far into that theatricalized level of reality which is one of her delusions, how far we could go and not break the turn of the movie. And the answer to that is not as far as we thought.” Although it’s difficult to believe that six elaborate dance sequences were scored, shot and then cut because Snyder “didn’t want to commit up front” we will probably never know the final explanation.
A bright spot in the film is the soundtrack. It weaves in and through the narrative and helps support the relatively detail free storyline. The best moment is the extremely heavy remix of Bjork’s “Army of Me” from her album, Post. De Vries was one of the producers on the 1995 record, probably explaining the song’s inclusion in the film. When asked about a soundtrack made up of covers he said, “The vast majority of what’s in here are covers and the reason that they’re covers is that we felt that it would be impossible to take any of the original productions and just needle drop them into these scenes and have them tell the story in as a sophisticated and precise a way as we needed them to.”
Co-Music Producer and long-time Snyder collaborator Tyler Bates followed up De Vries by saying, “This is Zack’s original story and I think he didn’t want the songs to overpower the movie as much as he wanted them to lift it and support it. Also, it gave us the opportunity to tailor them so they were specifically in the style of what Zack was projecting on screen, his storytelling. I think if it was just dropping covers in there it wouldn’t be as special.”
The Bjork song is the only original recording on the album, although it’s been heavily altered and is almost two minutes longer. “I’ve done a lot of movies where songs have been used in this way, for storytelling, but this is perhaps the only one where almost every song has been specifically designed and re-recorded and re-tooled,” said De Vries. The other songs that are covered, mostly by the cast of the film, are by a diverse array of artists including The Stooges, The Beatles, Jefferson Airplane, The Pixies, The Smiths, Queen, and Roxy Music. There is also a version of the Annie Lennox song Sweet Dreams sung by Emily Browning that makes you wonder what the film would have been like if it had stayed a musical.
At a point during one of Sucker Punch’s action sequences a young doughboy is seen sitting in the trenches, presumably exhausted, his head down and helmet covering his face. Baby Doll stops for a second and leans over, lifting his helmet so that she can see his eyes. They are tear filled and a deep brown and she gazes into them, transfixed. This part of the film is never explained, but it serves as a reminder of what cinema, even pop-cinema, can be. It also shows by contrast to the rest of the film what an unwieldly, unforgiving medium big-budget motion pictures can become.
Just watch Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse or read any of the numerous accounts of failed big budget movies. Will Sucker Punch fail at the box office? No, it’s too loud and pretty to do so. However, if that is the only criteria for the success of a film, then there would be no need for moments like the one in the trenches, a moment where a human connection was made.