Cast: Emily Browning, Abbie Cornish, Jena Malone, Vanessa Hudgens,
Jamie Chung, Scott Glenn ~ Writers: Zack Snyder, Steve Shibuya
Director: Zack Snyder ~ Year: 2011
The Low-Down: A schizoid mix of Shutter Island, Brazil, Inception, Moulin Rouge and Caged Heat, Zack Snyder’s geekfest opus Sucker Punch is an ambitious failure of jaw-dropping proportions. It’s also firm proof that it takes more than a gun, a sword and a midriff-exposing schoolgirl outfit to make an empowering kick-ass heroine…
What’s it About?: Sentenced to a grim lunatic asylum by her evil, EVIL stepfather, Babydoll (Emily Browning) is a traumatised teen who’s facing a personality-wiping lobotomy in five days, thanks to a corrupt orderly. Or is she the latest addition to an opulent bordello, where the girls all dream of escape? Or is she a superpowered action heroine, questing her way through lurid and explosive universes of the imagination?
The Story: In an odd kind of way I can’t help but slightly admire Zack Snyder. After all, this is a man who said “I want to make a film where nubile warrior vixens in suspenders battle giant samurai, dragons, and steampunk Nazi zombies”, and actually got someone to pay him to make it happen. It’s just a pity the end result ends up so ferociously boring, as well as being possibly the most misguided and wretched example of a director trying to prove themselves since Guy Ritchie’s hilariously awful 2005 oddity Revolver.
At the least, it’s hard to fault Sucker Punch in terms of ambition. In an era where big-budget original projects are the exception rather than the rule, it wants to stand out from the crowd. “Hey,” it says, “why can’t I be a reality-altering tale of a quest for freedom and the transformative power of the imagination, refracting my ‘escape from a girl’s mental institution’ plot through three separate realities?” It’d be a great idea, if all the ingredients of Sucker Punch weren’t crammed artlessly together in an indigestible stew that functions more as a sequence of music videos than an actual story, giving us a film that isn’t much more than a hyper-stylised guided tour through Zack Snyder’s personal scrapbook of geek fetishes.
From the evidence here, he’s definitely one of those directors who’s only as good as his material, and should on no account be allowed to write his own stories, as he barely seems to know how to create a believable emotional reality on camera. From the soundtrack of nu-metal cover versions (which somehow manages to choose songs that are both thunkingly obvious and staggeringly inappropriate) to the wildly inappropriate tone (which was obviously never meant to be tailored for a PG-13 certificate in the States), you’ve got a film that simply lurches from one scene to another, feeling like a teenager’s crazed recreation of some film they saw once that they really liked.
This needn’t have been a fatal problem – after all, plenty of films have been massively flawed but coasted by on the strength of their eye candy and some exciting battle sequences. And yet, one of the greatest acheivements of Sucker Punch is that Snyder takes the concept of sexy girls fighting Nazi steampunk zombies, dragons and ninja robots, and actually make it dull.
All of these sequences take place in the head of our main character, the vacuous and completely uninteresting Babydoll (Browning) while she’s performing lewd and lascivious dances that have the power to turn all the men in range weak at the knees. These sequences are supposed – in theory – to be heightened versions of the missions the girls have to perform in order to escape, metaphors for their imagination triumphing over adversity.
Trouble is, it’s impossible to care – these sequences are spectacular, but there’s never any sense of reality, never any stakes, and never any reason to emotionally connect with these ‘superhero’ versions of the characters. Parallels with Inception have been made – but while Inception has its flaws (and excessive exposition is definitely one of them), the one thing it does have is a genuine sense of risk, of something being at stake. We know the rules, and we know how the multiple worlds connect to and relate to each other. Sucker Punch’s multiple worlds exist simultaneously but only rarely connect – once the fantasy sequences start, we’re basically in a different movie for the next ten minutes, one that only rarely links up to anything resembling actual drama. Stuntwork, CG and absurdly overblown slow-mo are the order of the day, but presented without any explanation, any reason, any reality.
Yes, Snyder is capable of rendering some amazingly energetic and imaginative battle sequences – but half of his tricks are ripped off from other directors, and the rest are worn to the ground in Sucker Punch to such an extent that he’s effectively robbed me of any fleeting interest in seeing a Zack Snyder-directed Superman movie (especially in the train-attack and subsequent robot fight, where the CG-assisted speed-ramping is cranked up to such a ludicrous extent, I almost thought it was a Zucker Brothers-esque parody of how insanely stupid CG-assisted fight sequences have finally become).
Sucker Punch ends up playing as if someone had edited videogame cutscenes into a Baz Lurhmann remake of a Seventies girls prison flick, and the grinding repetition (nu-metal cover version, briefing, kill footsoldiers, fight boss, rinse, repeat…) soon becomes incredibly wearing – the insane spectacle loses its novelty, and simply becoming noise for noise’s sake.
It’s not as if we’re given anything much to care about outside of the action. Lead actress Emily Browning is a complete cypher, spending most of the film looking awesomely photogenic and slightly dazed, and while Abbie Cornish (the angry one) and Jena Malone (the spunky, rebellious one) make a vague impression, it’s not as if they’re actually being given characters to play.
The only performers who really make an impression are Scott Glenn, channelling the late David Carradine as the wizened Wise Man who guides Babydoll through the various missions (and also manages to make some of the clunking dialogue sound almost bearable) while Oscar Isaac as evil orderly/evil brothel owner Blue actually pulls off a genuine performance (one that’s certainly stronger than Carla ‘Enjoy my eccentric European Accent’ Gugino).
Everyone else is essentially playing paper-thin cartoons and eye-candy, but while the Girls-prison-flick meets Moulin Rouge tone runs out of steam pretty quickly, the biggest failure of all in Sucker Punch is that this overblown, pretentious, chin-stroking nonsense actually thinks it’s empowering. Note to Snyder: When your film has its main character spend virtually the entire film being menaced by men, exploited by men, admired solely for her gorgeousness (and her ability to harness the power of Sexydance), not having anything resembling an interior life, and regularly escaping into a fantasy world where she gets told what to do by a man – that’s not empowering in the slightest.
It’s really no worse in this regard than any Hollywood film in the last ten years that’s tried (and usually failed) to do a decent action heroine (aside from rare examples like Kill Bill), but if you’re going to make a lurid exploitation flick, just come out and say it. Sucker Punch wants to be saying “Free your mind!” – but its only real message is: “Yes, dear, you can go killing dragons and zombies, but do make sure that you’re wearing something incredibly skimpy that shows off your arse, won’t you?”
The Verdict: If you want two hours of things going KA-BOOM and skimpy outfits, then Sucker Punch will intermittently push your buttons. Otherwise, this ambitious failure is the working definition of ‘a tale full of sound and fury, signifying nothing’ – a mish-mash of influences that’s too busy throwing CGI and opulent production design in the audience’s faces to give them anything to care about.