Note to readers: This is a long, long review of Sucker Punch that covers many of the main beats of the film. I have spent a couple of days digesting the film, and have found it to be thoroughly fascinating and discussion-worthy, even if I don’t think it works. The short version is: I think it’s worth talking about and watching, but as a film I think it’s a failure – but hey, if you don’t want to know anything, you can read the first few paragraphed to get a better sense. You’ve been warned.
There are few films that are as misguided as Sucker Punch that they not only make you actively frustrated with the movie you’re watching, but also make you reconsider their director’s entire filmography. Granted, some films can be reconsidered for the better, like when someone who’s been working in the system finally gets a chance to show what they’re really after. And I think directors should be judged by their films, not what they say, and films can reflect on earlier work or later works. I don’t know if I would hold Alien 3 in as high regard as I do if David Fincher turned into a hack. That film has its problems, but now that we know Fincher as a director, you can see what he was going for in a much clearer light. But sometimes a filmmaker flops so hard that some of the credit you gave them before evaporates.
It’s worth noting there’s a difference between Tim Burton remaking Planet of the Apes and these sorts of films. It’s easier when a filmmaker has a hot period, and when there are films that are obviously closer to them that work, while their work for hire is lacking. Watching John Carpenter direct something like Village of the Damned… yes it’s a terrible movie, but he seems asleep at the wheel, not steering the film directly into a wall thinking he’s going to get to California.
Nathan Rabin, in his column and book My Year of the Flops has broke flops into three categories based on some dialogue from Elizabethtown. There are the failures, which are just bad things, and then fiascos, which are tremendous failures of such total flame-outs that you can only stand back and watch (the third category is secret successes, failures that are actually great, it’s just that no one knows it). But true fiascos are few and far between. And make no mistake about it, Zack Snyder’s Sucker Punch is one of the biggest fiascos a studio has released in a very long time. There are too may failures from Indiana Jones and the Temple of the Crystal Skull, to – say – the Nightmare on Elm St. remake, but most failures are indifferent. Even Transformers 2 – which was terribly misguided – is misguided in a commercial sense. There’s no personality there. Sucker Punch is full of personality. What it’s missing is a solid script.
The film that I was most reminded of watching Sucker Punch was Michael Bay’s Pearl Harbor. Like anything both films will have fans, and both will have passionate defenders. Good for them. And in both cases, the filmmakers obviously have an eye and intent. It’s just they have no idea what to do with it, and it’s going to be impossible for me to watch 300 or Watchmen again and think that the director had his eye on everything he accomplished. With 300 – because it was a narrative that had a narrator – there was always the sense that it could be heightened reality and that the film knew that it was propagandistic. 300 can function as brainless action, but it can also be seen as a rah-rah war film or just as easily a parody of that mindset and the pursuit of perfection, etc.
Much as before I saw Pearl Harbor, there was a sense that Michael Bay might actually know that his films (to that point) were ridiculous second generation copies of the sort of summer movies that came before. The films were absurd, but that doesn’t mean it’s makers didn’t know that as well. Both Bya and Snyder are so stylized that you can argue there may be a little Douglas Sirk in them. The Rock is a very strange movie with an odd sense of humor, and much of that humor comes from being a very left-leaning movie with a very right-leaning visual style. There is a joke being made on the nature of action movies, but after Pearl Harbor, it was hard to say if Michael Bay got what he made. And in watching Sucker Punch, it’s hard not to define Snyder as a visualist with no sense of how to tell a story. And yet there are things about the movie that feel like he’s trying to say something or be deeply felt –the same could be said of Bay with his Pearl Harbor. Snyder made a more personal vision, but in both cases neither seem all that aware of how they are failing. Snyder has revealed himself, but not in the ways that he meant to.
So, Sucker Punch. It starts with the curtain being raised, and within five minutes you know you’re watching something that is tone deaf. The film begins to the music of “Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This)” as sung by Emily Browning, who also stars as Baby Doll and whose mother passes away and leaves Baby Doll and her sister with an evil stepfather (Gerald Plunkett). The Stepfather finds out that the kids will get their mother’s inheritance, and it enrages him. So much so that he goes to Baby Doll’s bedroom to rape her.
The whole opening sequence is done sans dialogue and it’s a very bold choice, but the problem is the song – done in the Marilyn Manson “selling the creep” style. The mood is set in such a way that there’s no real tension (everything is so glum that you know what’s going down), and then when the stepfather changes his interest from Baby Doll to her younger sister, the film enters action mode as Baby Doll goes outside the house in the pouring rain to get a weapon to protect herself, and Snyder seems to be paying homage to himself (it mirrors the opening of Watchmen, which also turned an action sequence into something of a musical number). But Baby Doll’s sister is being threatened with rape, and yet everything is at the pitch of an action sequence with music that smothers the film in such a way that is numbing. You can sense what emotion Snyder is trying to get across but everything is so slick that it becomes a wash because it’s all so heightened. You don’t feel you’re seeing real horror, and the threat feels (as Drew McWeeney said) like you’re watching a new version of the “Janie’s Got a Gun” video. I never felt inside of the story, because Snyder’s technique kept me removed. The whole film in a nutshell.
Baby Doll then goes to that asylum where she overhears an orderly (Oscar Isaac) have a discussion with her stepfather. The orderly will get her lobotomized – but only for a price. Baby Doll is at this point mute, but when she finally talks you wonder why she doesn’t say anything about this. Or why the two would have the conversation about her. Perhaps in all the fluster I missed the part where they say she’s catatonic or something, but she isn’t, and is proved not to be. This actually makes sense in the narrative eventually, but when Baby Doll starts taking it feels like it should be a reveal. Her first line doesn’t suggests that she was not talking on purpose, and in that Snyder has no idea what he’s doing as a narrative storyteller. It doesn’t pop – it’s like he fumbled a classic opening, as if he introduced Orson Welles too early in The Third Man.
The beginning in this world is kept short – less than fifteen minutes, most of which is the musical opening – until the film plunges into the first fantasy world. Or it seems to be a fantasy world, because the whole opening section is so hyper-stylized that the difference between the two is never tangible – which makes this a lesser Wizard of Oz rif. But more on that later. In the asylum it sets up that there’s a doctor Vera Gorski (Carla Gugino), who works out therapy on stage with the inmates. We also get flashes of the girls inside, including Sweat Pea (Abbie Cornish), her sister Rocket (Jena Malone), Blondie (Vanessa Hudgens) and Amber (Jamie Chung). But other than flashes and a wee bit of dialogue that’s it. Then Jon Hamm shows up to give Baby Doll her lobotomy, but before it’s finished we enter the fantasy world.
In the fantasy world Dr. Gorski is a ex-whore turned dance instructor, the evil orderly is running the dance club where the inmates are now prostitutes who also dance for show, and Baby Doll is to be sold at the end of the week to the “High Roller.” There we get to meet the ladies in greater depth (versus none). Rocket is feisty, Sweat Pea is a curmudgeon, and the other two are comic relief-ish. Unfortunately Hudgens has no business being in a movie where she’s asked to act. Her performance reminds of a Shih-Tzu.
Okay, so the film starts with rape, and it’s about women being abused, and then in the whorehouse/dance saloon there’s all sort of terrible sexual things going on, but then also the film dresses the girls in fetish outfits and skimpy attire. If the film was meant to have underpinnings about sexual abuse (which connecting troubled girls with sex workers isn’t a terrible idea, etc.) these ideas would be great if they had any coherence in the film. Your main character’s name is Baby Doll – and it doesn’t seem to be a reference to the Elia Kazan film… The identity politics in the film are messy, they may be there but there’s no through-line. The film might be empowering, but it feels no more so than Barb Wire. Perhaps this speaks to men and their ability to turn any aspect of a woman into a fetish object, but again, it doesn’t seem to gel.
Before Baby Doll is given to the high roller, the club wants to see if she can dance. She gets up and has music played for her – which stops in such a way that you know it’s going to start over soon – and after the inspirational words that will get Baby Doll to move her body, she finally does. And right when she’s about to start dancing, boom, the film cuts to the third level, a complete fantasy world.
Okay, the first level – if we’re going all Inception – seems to be the real world, but we have no real bearings to suggest that’s necessarily true. Then there’s the whorehouse level, where it seems to be mapping to the insane asylum level, but again, there’s so little sense of the real. Then there’s a third level that seems to be Baby Doll’s fantasy world when her dancing is communicated as violence. So we never get to see her dance – and as someone who loves dancing, it feels like a cheat- though it’s understandable that if you’re going to have someone have magical powers while they’re dancing it’s near impossible to show.. Anyway, it’s in this world that Baby Doll meets Wise Man (Scott Glenn), who tells her that she needs five things. One is a map, the other is fire, the third is a knife, and the fourth is a key. The fifth is to be revealed when the plot demands it. This then also flashes back to the first level, so we can see there’s some connective tissue.
Then the Wise Man gives her a gun and a sword, and she goes to fight with three gigantic wooden Samurai figures. They throw her around, but then she takes them out…Okay, wait, got to stop again. We’re in a level of fantasy that’s so obviously fantasy there’s absolute no weight to what’s going on when she’s fighting these guys who seem to represent nothing specific to start with – except maybe the violence she would inflict given the chance. When you watch these fights it is simply all technique (masterful technique at that) but because it doesn’t seem to have connective tissue to anything that’s happening in the film, it’s becomes meaningless. I don’t care about reality, I care about dream logic, and it’s nice for an action sequence to have a character purpose. At no point does anything that could happen in her mind’s eye reflect on those around her (though she may incorporate some reality), nor does it deepen or strengthen her character or the storyline. It’s just how Snyder visualizes her dancing: As stylized fighting that has little relationship to the narrative. And it’s weird to be bored by such great proficiency. Without having her battles anchored, it just feels like showing off. Perhaps it’s meant to show how her sexuality empowers her character, but then to what purpose? And if this is a tale of empowerment, why is Baby Doll empowered by a man?
From there the film actually finds its narrative thrust. Baby Doll organizes the girls to escape. They need the five things from her dream, and they are the same five things as in her dream. To get them, Baby Doll is going to have to keep doing her magical dancing. At first they get the map by having Baby Doll perform again, and in this dream sequence she’s fighting Nazi zombies that she and her team kill with great enthusiasm.
Oh, wait, before I go any further let me note that the film has scant character development. Blondie and Amber in this level or the dream level are either tough bad ass chicks, or ditzy. Sweat Pea is always complaining in that way that reminds you of Ernest Borgnine (she’s a papa bear, but mostly she comes across as a wet bag), and Rocket is feisty. As the two are sisters, Rocket gives a speech that suggests that it’s her fault that Sweat Pea is in a house of prostitution. Which makes her the most rounded all things. But – and no spoilers – because the top level is so poorly drawn (though it does seem to be the film’s reality) it’s hard to know if anything at all that happens on the second level is reflected in the “real world” of the film. Even if you take what happens in the whorehouse world as a commentary on the real world in the asylum, at that point you don’t really know the girls enough to see the ending as meaningful. Perhaps they exist as archetypes, but even then… The film was shortened, the thing that would seem to right the movie is if we had more time to start with these characters, but as is, it’s in too much of a rush to give the audience its bearings.
Next up the team have to steal a lighter, and in the dream world, Baby Doll and team are fighting Orcs and Dragons. And Baby Doll must kill a baby dragon for their mission to be a success. This is interesting because it connects to the top level, and some of the thematic elements of the film. Baby Doll has no empathy for the baby, and then has to fight the mother along with the other girls. By this point the action was such that I was beginning to tune out. If Jamie Chung’s character gets hurt in the dream, does that reflect on the real-fake world? Sadly, you could put any of these set pieces in another movie, and if it had drawn the characters out, there might be a vested interest in stakes. In that way, the film feels like a jumble of eight films, all of which would be more interesting if they were their own thing. I am fully willing to admit there may be a good reading on this stuff, but I did not see it in the text. And my math on this is: If I have no real rooting interest, what does it mean to show it? I couldn’t find an answer other than “it looks cool.” I wanted more to latch on to than visuals that didn’t advance the narrative. I guess these sequences are “fun” – like an action movie version of Pennies From Heaven – but I wasn’t having fun watching it. It’s so leaden for dreaming.
When the film finally finishes its big finale in the second world where the girls try to escape, we finally cut back to the real world and learn that some of what happened in the dream world happened in the real world, and why Baby Doll might not say anything about the scheming. But it then leads to a conclusion where what happens makes no sense as a happy ending because we have no context of how all three levels truly map out, and to which the narration of the film leaves you with a “huh?” Perhaps the film will reveal more on multiple viewings, but it seems doubtful.
When David Lynch did this sort of thing with Mulholland Dr. part of that was a found art project of turning a TV pilot into a movie, but he also provided the connective tissue to explain the reality versus the fantasy world and how those two connected. Just as Oz also connects Dorothy’s troubles and friends and family to characters in her fantasy, which tell us something about how we fantasize. Here I kept waiting for things to play out in a way that made what I had seen come before have a greater purpose. I never found it, I think partly because Snyder didn’t do a good job as the screenwriter to connect things. I can see the film I think he wanted to make, and see the things I think he wanted to say, but the text itself doesn’t give me enough pieces to want to do that heavy lifting.
This isn’t the worst film ever made or anything like that, though watching it is nothing if not frustrating. Perhaps Snyder couldn’t leave his own head on this one, but by not really creating different styles for those levels – I guess the third level is more hyper-stylized, but you never get the sense of a good transition. Word around the campfire is that all of the girls sans Browning had dance numbers, and the end credits have a big number, which was easily my favorite part of the film. But where Snyder may have had a point to all this, he doesn’t seem to have any control. Snyder is still a master at blending CGI and humans in the most seamless of ways, but in the context of this narrative it’s dull.
Ultimately, this film needed a writer to see its themes and concerns and nuance the narrative so the characters felt better drawn, and actions had more weight. Previously, Snyder has had better or stronger material to draw on, so perhaps his narrative deficiencies could be masked by that structure to fall back on. Here there’s no net. And like Pearl Harbor or Elizabethtown, you get the sense you’re seeing the naked machinations of a director. All the pieces are there, but they don’t fit together right.
I’ve only seen Sucker Punch once, and maybe now that I know what it is, I might be able to enjoy it more. But the aspirations of the film surely exceed its grasp, and there seems to be a confidence in the visual telling that is missing on a story level. Icarus flew too high, and watching that lesson is both educational and painful to watch.