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.
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.
An Empty Vessel that Really Gets Cooking
Director and writer Zack Snyder would have you believe otherwise. He’s been emphatic – in response to criticism from earlier this year after the reviews (almost all bad) came out, and in the extras on the Blu-ray – that Sucker Punch is a rigorously structured, multi-layered head trip that reveals great depth of character; has a compelling and dramatic (and coherent) plot; and is some sort of deep philosophical treatise on the nature of reality, and that anyone missing the “point” does so through their own inability (or stupidity) to break through and see what Snyder wants you to see.
If that’s not enough, Snyder also defends himself and his film on feminist grounds, alleging that his heroines embody a certain kind of new ass-kicking girl power, and that Sucker Punch is some sort of neo-feminist manifesto. Now, though I can’t reasonably condone the film’s claims here, it’s clearly not the sort of noxious blend of misogyny that many critics labeled it. The fetishizing of comely young women accessorized with big machine guns and wearing skimpy clothing is certainly superficial and a bit heavy tipped on the adolescent wish fulfillment, but Sucker Punch really is just too empty headed to be maliciously hateful.
Misguided profundity or sexual politics aside, Snyder’s main problem is that he apprehends (and wants us to do the same) the movie as all of a piece, with all its diffuse layers interconnecting into a semi-coherent whole, when really it’s a text book example of the parts being greater than their sum. Taken individually, in fragments, any single segment in Sucker Punch is expertly executed and quite often brilliant. Taken together, though, they barely add up to what we would call a movie.
Whatever his faults, Snyder is some sort of stylistic savant and has proven very adept, in his short career so far, at orchestrating large scale, grandiose action sequences that are clear and easy to follow (especially given his predilection for frequent slow-mo) and quite thrilling, even if they don’t amount to much more than a lot of noise. His sure handed maximalist approach, already on display in 300 and Watchmen, finds its purest distillation here, achieving a look and style that is uniquely his own (or that at least no one else is doing right now with the same gusto and brash confidence).
Let’s take Babydoll’s first descent into the third layer of the film. Here she receives her plans for the escape and her weapons from a wise old man (Scott Glenn, doing his best David Carradine impersonation) in a snowbound, mountaintop dojo, and then squares off against three ten foot tall monster samurais, who come at her armed with giant katanas, rocket launchers and turbo machine guns. Set to the aggressive, gnarled militaristic thumping of Bjork’s “Army of Me”, this action sequence (the first of four in the third “world”) is a triumph of bombast and lunacy, with the pint sized Baby whirling about her adversaries, destroying everything in her path and razing the dojo to the ground, just for good measure. It resembles nothing so much as the most totally awesome video game boss battle ever fused to the most totally awesome music video ever (sorry, there’s my 14 year old self interjecting, again).
The problem is, each subsequent third layer action scene is structured similarly, with whatever song Baby is dancing too up in the second world providing the soundtrack to each scene, and the girls executing each mission like it’s a level in a video game. There’s a wearying relentlessness to it when you realize that by the third one you are pretty much the same thing over and over again, with different trappings. It all has to be heading somewhere, right? There has to be some payoff…
There isn’t. Or there is, and it’s just exactly what we are seeing, and nothing more. The iconography and tableaux Snyder uses – a hodgepodge of teen boy action fantasy, comic/manga nerd fetishism, videogame level design and Tarantino-esque appropriation of junk culture — churn out, almost mechanically, images and sequences that are so grandiose and larger than life, so presumably symbolic, that they verge on the totalitarian. Everything is so huge and heavy and unsubtle that is seems like it all should mean something, but at the end of the day it’s all just a menagerie of stuff that Snyder (and his fans) think is, well, totally cool and awesome.
Sucker Punch is, in the end, an empty vessel, full of sound and fury signifying nothing, though it’s a furious sounding nothingness that’s hard to turn your attention away from once it gets cooking. Sure, nothing in it really hangs together or makes sense, but none of it has too, since whatever is thrown up on the screen at any given moment is so overwhelming, fun and (yes) totally awesome that it blots out whatever came before it, or any objections we (or our brains) may have.
Here’s the one sure judgment I can make of the home release: on Blu-ray, Sucker Punch is absolutely stunning. It looks gorgeous, sounds even better, and has enough bells and whistles to satisfy fans and perhaps address some of the concerns of the film’s legion critics. Snyder’s commentary presentation (which accompanies the extended cut, but not the theatrical) is a screen within a screen popout called “Maximum Movie Mode”. It includes lots of supplementary behind the scenes footage in which he and other crew members talk in depth on the rationale behind certain scenes, and how they were made (no one will ever accuse Snyder of being lazy in staging and pulling off his action scenes). If Snyder goes perhaps a bit overboard in explication, his enthusiasm is palpable. You get the feeling that he thinks he is making the greatest movie, ever.
The extended cut of the film (about 17 minutes longer) restores an elaborate, musical stage show number in the brothel that was excised for being too lighthearted (it plays in the original release over the closing credits) and draining the film of its ominous edge of ever present menace. It’S fun though, and suggests a different route the film might have taken, if it had played down the video game/comic book aspects and played up its quasi-musical angle.
The major deleted scene, inserted just before the conclusion, is so significant, though, that it totally revises the way the film ends and what it might mean. It also might restore some of the coherence that is missing in what is otherwise an abrupt and head scratching final sequence between Baby and the lobotomist. I won’t give anything away, but what seemed like an abrupt transition in the theatrical release now is given a certain context and depth that gives Baby’s ultimate fate more meaning. Snyder never really explains why he cut it, but it’s a shame he did, because it might have salvaged some critical sympathy.
The remaining extended scenes are mostly strewn in the various third world action sequences, and are really just more mayhem. And the other features are a brief bit (less than three minutes) about the soundtrack, and a collection of four animated sequences that serve as dry runs for the big, filmed action sequences. Curios for dedicated fans, nothing more.