Reviewed by Joshua Blackman on April 12, 2011
presents a film directed
by Zack Snyder
Written by Zack Snyder and Steve Shibuya
Starring: Emily Browning, Abbie Cornish, Jena Malone, Vanessa Hudgens, Jamie Chung, Carla Gugino & Oscar Isaac
Running Time: 110 minutes
Released: April 7, 2011
There's been a stack written about this film already, both from those decrying as incompetent, incoherent mess, to those defending it as a stylish, complex extravaganza. Sucker Punch - Zack Snyder's first original film - is at once both and neither of these things. While overly indebted to simplistic video-game iconography and plot mechanics, Snyder's visual flair is hugely evident, and the complex, barely explained, dream-within-a-dream structure is ripe for theorizing and deconstruction. Unfortunately, the experience of watching Sucker Punch is far less palatable - it feels less like watching a movie than alt-tabbing between a slickly-produced 2-hour music video and watching someone else playing the latest third-person action video game.
Babydoll (Emily Browning) getting sexy and kick-ass-ey in her fantasy world
Granted, both activities are not without their merits or pleasures, but one expects a little more - or at least some more substance - in a film that circles around themes of power, feminism, sexual abuse and the male gaze. Unfortunately, Zack Snyder has revealed himself as an empty stylist, one capable of producing beautiful, visceral images (usually in slow motion - see 300, Watchmen or his Owl-movie, Legend of the Guardians) but without a firm grasp of how to develop plot or character. As AP/Ebert Presents critic Christy Lemire commented on What the Flick?! "The gifts are all there and he uses them for crap!"
The film tells the story of Babydoll (Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events actress Emily Browning), a young woman plotting to escape a gothic mental institution after being incarcerated by her nasty step-father for the accidental murder of her sister. This we learn this through a quite impressive opening montage set to a heavy remix of Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This). It's all downhill from there, though, as Babydoll attempts to stave off a scheduled lobotomy at the hands of a dashing doctor (played by Mad Men's Jon Hamm).
To escape she devises a scheme that involves imaging herself as an erotic dancer in a bordello under the watchful eye of Madamn Gorski (Watchmen-alum Carla Gugino) and mob-boss, Blue Jones (Robin Hood's Oscar Issac). Forced to dance (read: have sex), she escapes this horror by imagining herself as an action heroine in combat with giant samurai, steampunk World War I soldiers, dragons and slinky robots. Each of these sequences is a metaphorical representation of her search for a bunch of objects that will help her escape in the real asylum world (a map, a key, etc...) She's joined in this fantasy by the impulsive Rocket (Jena Malone), the not-blonde Blondie (Vanessa Hudgens), the machine-hog Amber (Jamie Chung), and the physically imposing Sweet Pea, who is played stalwartly by Abbie Cornish.
The five women and their cheesy dream guide played by Scott Glenn
There's a lot going on in Sucker Punch, and Snyder, deliberately or otherwise, refrains from explaining his dreamworld's intricacies and rules. The result is that it's hard to care one way or another about the overbearingly shot and scored action scenes - the only one with any impact is the real-time battle in WWI trenches populated by zombified German soldiers. Snyder still knows how to frame a shot, however, and he has a feel for pacing and editing rhythm, but to what end? The structure of of the film (co-written by Snyder and Steve Shibuya) negates any dramatic tension, and the characters are so thinly drawn it's hard to care if they live or die (nor do we know if that's even possible in Babydoll's fantasy).
The film provides answers to some of these questions late in the game, and there's a semi-twist ending that can be read in a number of ways. And that, ultimately, is the conundrum of Sucker Punch. At once thematically interesting and offensively banal, it's not an enjoyable film to watch if you have any interest in coherent storytelling or characterization. It's not even a good action film. But paradoxically it is original, ambitious and visually arresting. Salon.com critic Andrew O'Hehir put it best when he said "I can't be sure whether it's brilliant or idiotic, although I'm pretty confident it's both, and not always in different places or at different moments."