Directed by Zack Snyder
Screenplay by Zack Snyder and Steve Shibuya
Emily Browning as Baby Doll
Abbie Cornish as Sweet Pea
Jena Malone as Rocket
Vanessa Hudgens as Blondie
Jamie Chung as Amber
Running time: 109 minutes
Motion Picture Rating: Rated PG-13 for thematic material involving sexuality, violence and combat sequences, and for language.
A convoluted, disappointing fever dream with a muddled message.
The marketing for Zack Snyder’s new flick Sucker Punch was ingenious and ubiquitous: “Here!” the trailers proclaimed, to the tune of Led Zeppelin’s “When the Levee Breaks.” “Hot girls fighting robots and dragons! Massive explosions! Archival, steampunk-influenced imagery!” What’s not to like? As it turns out, there’s a lot to hate about this newest feat in CGI. What could’ve been a powerful, cathartic fantasy turns out to be an exploitative head-scratcher that’s little more than a good-looking dragon and a lot of flesh.
After the death of her mother, Baby Doll (Emily Browning) tries to protect her younger sister from their lecherous stepfather. When this goes horribly awry the potential rapist promptly dispatches her to the Lennox House for the Mentally Insane. At Lennox House, a foreboding, Victorian structure reminiscent of Session 9’s Danvers State Hospital, Baby Doll meets Rocket (Jena Malone), her older sister Sweet Pea (Abbie Cornish), Amber (Jamie Chung), and Blondie (Vanessa Hudgens). Ostensibly presiding over them is voluptuous Dr. Gorski (Carla Gugino), but in reality psychotic orderly Blue (Oscar Isaac) is pulling the strings. Baby Doll has a vision during a group therapy session in which she meets the David Carradine-like Wise Man (Scott Glenn), whose wisdom includes trite aphorisms like “Don’t write a check with your mouth you can’t cash with your ass” and “Remember: if you stand for nothing, you’ll fall for anything.” The Wise Man tells her to locate a map, fire, a knife, and a key. Somehow she convinces her cohorts to join her in an escape scheme that occurs in a fantasy within a daydream.
In Baby Doll’s head, the girls are not in a mental hospital but a brothel ruled by smarmy, unbalanced Blue. The young women are essentially slaves in miniskirts, bustiers, and fishnets. And although we never see her do it, Baby Doll can apparently dance in such a titillating fashion that her gyrations hypnotize every male within a mile, allowing her compatriots to do her dirty work. Here’s where the dual fantasy worlds come in: the Wise Man sends the five women on four missions (“Good morning, Angels. This is your mission, should you choose to accept it”), allowing them to play the roles of samurais, soldiers, pilots, and dragon slayers. Sure, these are roles that are stereotypically masculine, and it’s great to see miniscule young women fighting the baddies. What’s unfortunate is the fetishistic garb in which the women are dressed. The lingerie, stockings, and headgear the actresses don are visibly constricting—making it pretty hard to believe they’d be kicking so much ass (for reference see also: Ultraviolet, Aeon Flux). HD may extol the virtues of computerized imagery, but it is extremely unkind to the kind of pancake makeup and goopy eyeliner under which our protagonists toil. One assumes the filmmakers intended the costuming and makeup to mean Baby Doll and the other young women are embracing their sexual power in the aftermath of attempted violations. Though there’s certainly power in being an object of desire, it’s hard to take seriously when the women do so little to assert themselves in the real world—and appear to revel in the trappings of weakness. When Blue, really a nonthreatening (though creepy) character with a ridiculous pencil-mustache, confronts the women, all of our tough-as-nails heroines just weep in their skimpy burlesque costumes. Come on, ladies, were you or were you not just slaying dragons and shooting machine guns?
Disclaimer: I’m not a humorless killjoy. Who doesn’t enjoy a good old exploitation flick on occasion? Unfortunately, Sucker Punch fails even at exploiting its strengths. It’s rated PG-13. There’s not even the barest hint of actual sexuality despite all the breasts and thighs on display; there’s no real bloodshed and definitely no cathartic, satisfying culmination. In between extended fight sequences during which you’ll find yourself zoning out, the characters remain static, their stock traits on display for simplicity. Sucker Punch strove to be what the trailers made it out to be: a comic-book-influenced tale of female empowerment—Alice down the rabbit hole with big guns, robots, and mythical creatures. It didn’t succeed. Duly unfortunate is the fact that Snyder, much like M. Night “What a twist!” Shyamalan, has officially figured out his signature: slow motion. Sucker Punch could easily have cut its run time by a quarter if there had been fewer protracted, sluggish shots fetishizing either flesh or brutality.
In the past Snyder has brought us some fantastic eye candy: Watchmen, 300, and the remake of Dawn of the Dead. Sucker Punch is at times a treat for the senses; the graphics and fight sequences are well done. Bafflingly, Snyder utilized a soundtrack that includes Bjork’s “Army of Me” and covers of The Smiths’ “Asleep,” Jefferson Airplane’s “White Rabbit,” The Pixies’ “Where Is My Mind?” and The Beatles’ “Tomorrow Never Knows.” Normally when a filmmaker uses covers, it’s to poke fun at or make a statement about the film’s derivative or self-referential content (Snyder did this well in Watchmen); here it doesn’t work and the music simply feels incongruous.
If you see Sucker Punch, you’ll probably get the faintest grasp of what the filmmakers meant to do. It’s too bad the end product doesn’t live up to it. Some people will love it—as I said, who doesn’t love a good movie about sexy women fighting sweet battles against big bad monsters? But those of us who wished for catharsis this spring or expected the first colossal blockbuster of 2011 will probably leave wishing we’d been lobotomized—and drooling at the prospect of Captain America and X-Men: First Class.