Zack Snyder, 2011, USA
“Sucker Punch” is a mess. Incredibly so. If nothing else, Snyder has given a clue as to what the fantasies might look like of an adolescent boy getting his first awkward crush over a female character from a games console adventure. On the other hand, the mash-up anything-goes-high-fantasy-over-plotted-and-under-developed and adventures-within-adventures set-up also resembles many comic strips from “Heavy Metal” magazine and many Manga titles. It’s just... a mess.
By the miracle of CGI and other modern special effects, Snyder can do anything, but that only means he has no control. More for the mix: steampunk, “American McGee’s Alice”, Ray Harryhausen giant monsters, post-“X-men” moody and soapy superhero comics, bad fem-rock videos. When tied to a solid and fascinating story such as “Watchmen”, Snyder’s boundless/undisciplined imagination sometimes worked wonders in bringing that seminal graphic novel to life. When limited to a realistic world and forced to abide by certain horror conventions, Snyder produced a number of outstanding scenes in his remake of “Dawn of the Dead” (the opening remains one of the best introductory sequences ever). “300” showed just how ridiculous and terrible Snyder can be when the script does not focus him: at his worst, he comes across as oblivious to the actual meaning and intent of the material at hand. But “300” is, if nothing else, one big joke of absurdism and there is a tongue in a cheek somewhere, surely. When, in “Watchmen”, he used “Hallelujah” for a sex scene, it was hilariously audacious. “Sucker Punch” has none of this knowingness. It has no control at all.
Here is a director that has used music and genre mash-ups to considerable effect previously, and yet here hits all the wrong notes. In “Dawn of the Dead” he bonded Johnny Cash with the zombie genre, and in “Watchmen”, the superhero genre with Nina Simone, all to wonderful effect. With “Sucker Punch” there is some Tarantino effect where you feel that he has written down the play-list for the soundtrack before getting the film together. He doesn’t go as far as to ‘sample/steal’ from other film soundtracks, but what we do have is a relentless catalogue of so-so rock cover-versions. The songs are often so obvious and puerile in their association to the plot that you wonder if there will be a song about walking up stairs when someone walks up stairs. “Army of Me” when Baby Doll first shows her combat skills; “Where is My Mind?” to signify lobotomised and fantasy-insanity; “Search and Destroy” for… you get the idea. We know we are in trouble from the outset: before we have even settled, we have an extended pre-credits music-video for a cover version of “Sweet Dreams (are made of this)”, which is apparently the go-to song for girls being abused by their step-daddies once their mother dies. In trying to stop leery step-dad from abusing her sister, Baby Doll (Emily Browning) accidentally shoots her sister (although the scene is muddled and so this was not particularly clear to me at first, or to the people I went to see the film with). It is somehow indicative of the bewildered and shallow psychology of “Sucker Punch” that it has no understanding of the ambiguities of the lyric of “Sweet Dreams”, that they imply a little give-and-take which, if applied to the situation of these “Sucker Punch” sisters, could imply they were as much to blame as the step-dad. Well, they do dress sweetly and move around in pretty slo-mo. Overall, “Sucker Punch” goes on to look like feature-length music video tie-in for a dodgy cover versions album. There is no interesting friction in the mash-ups of inappropriate songs married to various scenes. Song choices: 1 point (the originals are mostly great). Cover Versions: 1 (they probably aren't all bad when taken out of the film). Song use: minus 3 points.
And so Baby Doll is thrown into a sanatorium by her step-dad and left at the mercy of the corrupt orderlies. At the point of being lobotomised, reality flips and we are in a club/brothel full of hot girly-girls and frequented by putrid males. Baby Doll has retreated into an alternate reality where the club is run by a sub-Pacino scene-chewer called Blue (Oscar Isaac), and where she proves not only to be the best dancer ever, but also the one to encourage a handful of other captive girls to try to escape. As ever, this fantasy runs on the perpetual “chosen one” motif. However, there is another collapsing of reality, for when Baby Doll dances, she zones out and we are given self-contained action sequences in different scenarios/levels. These are the best moments of the film, for they hold the crop of beautiful images and offer up a selection of game-inspired but irresistible creatures: clockwork nazis, giant samurais with chain-guns; dragons; bi-planes; robot-battle-suits; silver attack robots – all familiar from sources such as “Lord of the Rings”, “Killzone”, “Dragonslayer” and so on and so on. For my money, the giant samurai fight is the best of the lot, the clockwork nazis the creepiest, the dragon the prettiest. But then I am a sucker for a good dragon. (The dragon sequence offers perhaps the most original and striking visual: when it bites off the tail of the fleeing airplane, we get to see it chomp down from inside the plane.) The fight editing is thrilling and unintelligible in equal measure, but at least in these sequences Snyder is not tied down to story and he offers some spectacular artificial imagery.
Rarely has a film gotten such a kick from watching girls getting kicked around and then kicking-ass. On the one side, this feels like more titillation for the guys, on the other the girls’ involuntary squeals and grunts of pain and panic seems to reveal how artificial macho-centric and unrealistic films are when they don’t show the men during battle doing the same (yes, I know: a real man doesn’t squeal in pain, etc.). The girls scream and grunt here, and then they wipe out the opposition. But “Sucker Punch” is so thoroughly divorced from reality and the action sequences so grounded in game-console language that no point is proven about gendered action fiction and only the titillation remains. We are meant perhaps to see this is a tale of oppressed and abused girls discovering feminine fight-back power, and Snyder has said he sees it as such, but they are dressed for the male gaze and the male gaze runs supreme here: in “300” this male gaze, fascinated with physique and muscles, flesh and action-poses, created infamously homoerotic vistas; in “Sucker Punch” it simply feels like pandering to a teen fanboy’s soft core dreams. When the girls are hurt and abused, tears streaming down faces and so on, it feels like more titillation: look how pretty the girls hurt. Emily Brown as Baby Doll, evidently cast for her big Manga-eyes and Bambi-in-headlights looks, is barely human at all, so porcelain is her skin, so eternally and simultaneously injured and vacuous are her looks. Not that the other girls fare any better, but Baby Doll is left troublingly not so much between Virgin/Whore but more Kewpie Doll/Whore, an empty vessel and lacuna upon which stuttering male fantasies can have it all. She is slave to a brothel; she can dance like a stripper (the fact that we do not see her dance feels analogous to the fact that we cannot see her in the bedroom with clients ~ this is pretty sordid stuff for a PG-13); she can fight back too and look hot doing so. Compare with Hit-Girl from “Kick Ass”: Snyders harem of girl-power folds into ridiculousness by comparison. Which girl audience would take Baby Doll, Sweet Pea, Blondie, Rocket and Amber as their fantasy icons when you have Hit-Girl to hand? (And no, I don't consider The Spice Girls to have been a genuine historical source of "girl-power" either.)
And finally there shall be the old martyred heroine to top off the cheap dramatics and clichés. Well, not totally: the end credits, appallingly, give a last minute musical number (of “Love is the Drug”, no less). Confused on all frequencies and misfiring on several, “Sucker Punch” has only the visuals of the fantasy sequences to recommend it, and even then they shall remind you of gameplaying and other films. Come the third or fourth, even these sequences become tedious. “Sucker Punch” is only going to feed Snyder’s detractors endlessly and, after “Watchmen’s” successes (and time shall surely prove it a success in the main part), “Sucker Punch” is a terrible comedown. Snyder is a visualiser who apparently needs a strong script to rein him in, but right now his failings as a mature artist probably fits just right for Hollywood’s juvenilia. Who knows, since he has proven hit-and-miss and thoroughly erratic, his next film might be his best? But they probably shouldn’t let him write it.