– Summary –
Director : Zack Snyder
Year Of Release : 2011
Principal Cast : Emily Browning, Abbie Cornish, Jena Malone, Vanessa Hudgens, Jamie Chung, Carla Gugino, Oscar Isaac, Jon Hamm, Scott Glenn, Gerard Plunkett.
Approx Running Time : 127 Minutes
Synopsis: When a young woman is sent to a Vermont insane asylum by her sadistic, pedophile stepfather, she joins forces with a group of fellow “inmates” to hatch a plan of escape.
What we think : Stylish, epic action/fantasy that hits the screen with a dull thud, rips itself in half trying to make any kind of sense (or point) and eventually staggers to a half-cocked conclusion filled with mumbo-jumbo psychobabble – this is less a film about girls fighting for freedom than it is about sadistic men gratifying themselves over young, scantily dressed women in the guise of “feminist empowerment”. Sucker Punch is more of a limp-wristed slapping contest.
After his debut with Dawn Of The Dead, his sophomore effort of 300, and the dark-yet-awesome Watchmen, Zack Snyder cuts loose with Sucker Punch, a film he’s directed from his own material instead of something drawn from another medium (comics, usually). The expectation from fans when the first trailer came online was enormous, and it was always doubtful to me whether or not Snyder would succeed in gratifying that expectation. His visual style, honed to sizzling perfection with sharp focus, elegant slow-motion, seemed a perfect match for the story of a young girl locked away in an insane asylum who fantasizes about her escape – the widescreen scope of the battles and action sequences lent themselves to a man renowned for his artistic prowess at delivering large-scale cinema. Snyder has delivered fantasy in ways we’ve never before seen in cinema before, and I think I speak for many folks out there who expected yet another rousing, pulse-pounding action flick to get us through to his take on Superman. It’s a shame, then, to find that the critical drubbing Sucker Punch received upon release, and on many a blog afterwards, is actually pretty deserved.
Babydoll (Aussie actress Emily Browning) is sent to a Vermont insane asylum by her stepfather after he blames her for killing her sister (she didn’t, he did) and almost killing him (she did) – there, she meets four fellow inmates: Amber (Jamie Chung), Blondie (Vanessa Hudgens), Rocket (Jena Malone) and Rocket’s sister Sweet Pea (the film’s second Aussie actress in Abbie Cornish), all of whom “perform” for asylum orderly Blue (Oscar Isaac) and his cronies. I say perform, because the underlying subtext indicates they are abused sexually, although the film transmogrifies this into a 60’s nightclub/dance-hall where the girls “dance” for their customers. Asylum psychiatrist Dr Gorski (Carla Gugino) teaches the girls how to “dance”, and discovers in Babydoll an exceptional “performer” who’s raw talent sends all who watch her into a frenzy – especially the men. Babydoll’s fantasy reflects the fractured mindset of her real world habitation – the film flits into several action sequences when our group of girls must gather four elements to assist in their escape – fire, a map, a knife and a key – sequences imagined by Babydoll as she dances to distract the orderlies and guards from their real purpose. In these fantasies, she meets the Wise Man (Scott Glenn), who gives them instructions on what they need to achieve, how to achieve it, and always a “…and one last thing” to ensure viewers don’t tune out.
It’s hard to know where to really start with this film. Tackling the subject matter – rape and abuse of women – is pretty difficult at the best of times, and Sucker Punch is far from being one of the better times, I have to say. Zack Snyder essentially rapes the concept of rape itself into a male-oriented teen-boy action flick for the stupid: he perverts the horror of what transpires within his created world and tries to abscond with the “provides excellent material with which to present escapist fantasy sequences” line. Sorry Zack, I’m not buying it. This isn’t an action film, per se. It’s a horror film, a PG13 version of Hostel or Saw without the blood, gore or viscera of human carnage – all that is left up to the imagination – and is most certainly adult in its thematic elements. Female empowerment, a tag line I’ve heard used by Snyder in the promotion and reasoning for his exercise in style-over-substance, is as far from the truth of the film as is humanly possible. The characters, all young, hot women castigated both physically and emotionally by an abusive orderly within the establishment of their incarceration, have as much character depth as a puddle of water, which is to say, virtually nil. Babydoll, played by wide-eyed and completely emotionally suffocated Emily Browning, is the supposed leader of this band of femme semi-fatales, and while the film opens with plenty of motivation for her to have a hatred of men, she never once lives up to that motivation in any of her actions – the suffering of Babydoll and her young comrades seems to be almost Christ-like for an expected outcome; they must bear their sins and traverse the pathway of violence and cruelty to be delivered up to freedom at the last, albeit incredibly intangible, moment of their lives, for the specter of impending lobotomies looms large over them all.
Snyder’s script is a hell of a lot of faux-melodrama, a slice of narrative poppycock and voice-over flim-flammery, never once feeling legitimate amongst the digital CGI and green-screen. Snyder can’t manage to give any of the characters any sense of purpose – beyond the immediate peril of being abused at the hands of Blue, that is. Babydoll floats through the film with almost no impact at all as a character, while fellow inmates Sweet Pea and Rocket provide at least a minute amount of connection to the audience (they’re sisters, apparently, and one is there because the other ran away from home), all the time giving resident Bad Guy Blue a chance to scowl, rage and anger through the movie. Oscar Isaac does a top job as the man we love to hate. In fact, all the men in this film are vile creatures, perhaps Snyder’s subtle point to how he thinks women should feel about men in general? The use of misogyny and abuse at the hands of people who should know better notwithstanding, Sucker Punch is still a pretty terribly constructed story – the mismatch of reality and fantasy, the inclusion of dragons, gas-powered Nazi soldiers, giant samurai warriors and even the leftover orcs from Return Of The King (I was wondering what happened to them when they all ran away once the ring went into the lava) thrown in with the sultry 60’s brothel setting and a bunch of lithe young females brandishing attitude, which, now that I think about it, sounds pretty awesome, actually isn’t. Not by a long shot.
The cobbling together of such a variety of disparate ideas, even though they should be kinda cool to watch (and, truthfully, each fantasy segment in and of itself is pretty awesome from a pure action-oriented perspective, and typically Snyder-stylized) ends up diluting the end result, because the jarring juxtaposition of images, the often confusing “is this reality or fantasy” question I kept asking myself, and the genuinely nasty slant with which Snyder takes this film work against each other. It’s a case of more is less, as it were. Visually, the film is redolent of Snyder’s exacting vision, his razor sharp imagery and depth of field, and makes massive use of the CGI technology he’s come to embrace since 300, yet the story doesn’t work to pull it all together. All the glorious fantasy carnage in the world can’t stop me thinking that while this is happening, in the “real world” these girls are having experiences similar to I Spit On Your Grave. DOP Larry Fong, who’s worked on all Snyder’s live-action films bar Dawn Of The Dead, sees his work buried under a hyper-stylized color grading style that blurs the lines between possible and the impossible – this film has been tinkered with until most of it resembles a cutscene from a computer game.
Come to think of it, the entire film plays like a cutscene from a computer game, a game we can’t play or even buy, and this ruins a lot of the goodwill Snyder had going into making his Superman film. The score, also buried underneath a pounding symphony of re-badged pop classics (the film opens with a rendition of the Eurythmics’ Sweet Dreams, sung by lead actress Emily Browning, and goes from there), thanks to Moulin Rouge maestro Marius De Vries, and regular Snyder cohort Tyler Bates, was a continuous assault of my senses by the never-ending mood-killer of a soundtrack and ended up giving me aural fatigue. Much of the film’s sound and fury style ended up just sounding furious, and I think I just blanked out a lot of it in the end to save my mind from exploding. Editing, by Hollywood legend William Hoy (he chopped Watchmen, 300, Outbreak, We Were Soldiers, worked on Dances With Wolves and cut his teeth on the Kevin Costner flick No Way Out) is again superb, particularly the gargantuan fantasy action sequences, although I think he struggled to gain traction in the more dramatic, human moments of the film. Snyder can’t do human emotion, I’ve figured, at least not real human emotion in any case. Stylized human emotion is fine (300 is a great testament to that) but when it comes time for people to latch onto these characters he brings us, we often find there’s nothing there worth attaching to.
Sucker Punch is an emotionally empty, vitriolic, nasty, grimy piece of PG-rated torture porn, filled with moments of genuinely horrifying themes and even more horrifying characters. I did so go into this with a wide open mind, and lower than normal expectations (hey, the stuff I’d read on this film prior to viewing had some effect on me, you know!) and I have to say, those expectations weren’t met. They were, in the sense that I agree with the masses in stating that this film is pretty shitty, but my expectations of Snyder as a filmmaker led me to think I’d get more than this. Sucker Punch isn’t a good film – it’s not unwatchable, it’s just that I can’t imagine anybody finding any pleasure in the actual watching of it.
My good mate Al K Hall, over at The Bar None, had this to say: “Sucker Punch is like staying up after bedtime and your parents don’t even know or the first time you see real nudity on TV or mixing two different kinds of energy drinks and drinking them both. Sucker Punch is hard rock candy with extra tat.”