An open letter to the director of Sucker Punch
Dear Zack Snyder,
I don’t know if you remember me — especially since we’ve never met in person — but I’ve spent the past few years moderating the forum at WatchmenComicMovie.com. You remember WCM, don’t you? It’s only the largest Watchmen fansite online. In fact, quite early in that movie’s production, you graced us with an exclusive fan Q&A. Do you remember who it was that went through all of the submissions and chose which ones would be passed along to you?
Yeah. That was me. True story.
I’ve been only too happy to lavish praise onto your work with Watchmen and to continue supporting your career, but I think we both know that it hasn’t always been easy. After all, it isn’t exactly a secret that Watchmen underperformed at the box office and got quite a few critical whippings (I actually saw it on a few “Worst of 2009” lists. Can you believe it?). What’s more, there are still quite a few comic book fans that take issue with one or two liberties you took in the process of adaptation. And of course, there’s the fact that ever since your revolutionary style of cinematic action in 300, you’ve been quite a controversial “love him or hate him” kind of director. Still, I continued supporting you through it all and judging from the forum’s continued activity, I don’t think I’m alone in that.
In fact, we at the WCM forum have had a lot of fun over the past couple of years, wildly anticipating Sucker Punch. You should’ve seen us post news links, trade rumors, swap the latest production photos, drool over the trailers and comment about how awesome it was all going to be. For my part, I know that I’ve personally spent these past few months praying to the movie gods that this film could come out sooner.
So now the date of release is upon us and I’ve finally had the chance to see your passion project. So now, I’m left with only one question: What the hell happened?
Let’s just look at the premise: A young girl is abused by her evil stepfather until she tries and fails to kill him. To guarantee her silence and to collect the inheritance left to the girl by her deceased mother, the evil stepfather sends her to an insane asylum and arranges for her to be lobotomized. While awaiting the procedure — forcibly delayed for five days — our heroine and a few of her fellow inmates try to escape while imagining themselves as elite warriors battling monsters.
That is a kickass premise. It’s a truly original story, easily understood with a horrible antagonist and an instantly sympathetic protagonist. It’s filled to the brim with great visual possibilities all wrapped around a coming-of-age/escape story. So… why didn’t you work with that?
No, seriously: Why didn’t you make a film with that premise? Fifteen minutes in, our young protagonist disappears and is replaced by “Baby Doll”, who’s pressed into employment at a burlesque performance hall. Now, the movie’s conflict is that she has five days until the “High Roller” comes to… do something presumably X-rated to her, it’s never made clear in this PG-13 movie. But most perplexing is that now, our beautiful group of dancers (read: mental patients) must dance and perform for their male bosses (read: the orderlies). Oh, and when Baby Doll goes into one of her burlesque routines, she starts daydreaming about killing monsters with her new friends.
Do you see the problems here, Zack? Do you understand why this “dream within a dream” thing makes no sense? Well, let me try to elaborate.
There was a movie called Inception last year that also had a multi-layered dream world setting. The difference is that if you go back and watch it, you’ll notice that the characters are all kept consistent. They have the same goal all the way through and they all have identities rooted in a baseline reality. Compare that to the lead characters of Sucker Punch. We don’t know a thing about them, aside from how they appear in Baby Doll’s imagination. Furthermore, it’s a big fucking problem when a story’s protagonist changes the goal from one thing to another so suddenly and with no explanation or logic.
But what really sets this film apart from Inception is that in the latter film, the different dream layers affected each other. We clearly saw how our characters’ actions in one dream affected circumstances in another dream. Thus, the characters had legitimate motivations to succeed and we had reason to root for them. Sucker Punch offers neither. Oh, don’t get me wrong: The “fantasy fights” were all amazing to watch. The fights were beautifully shot and choreographed, the special effects were phenomenal and you totally outdid yourself with the editing, which really is saying something. The problem is that however spectacular the action is — and don’t get me wrong, the action is pretty fucking spectacular — it’s all for naught because they aren’t real. They’re just the vivid imaginations of our lead character.
This would be one thing if the fantasies affected the real world in some way, but they clearly don’t. The monsters don’t represent guards or orderlies, the fantasy maneuvers of our heroines have no bearing on their actions in the real world and there’s never any risk of actual injury as they slay so many hordes of monsters. There is one exception, but it doesn’t come until the very end of the last fantasy fight. By that point, it’s too little and far too late.
Basically put, there’s nothing at stake in the fantasy fights because the fights have nothing to do with reality. Hell, thanks to your decision to put that “burlesque” hallucination into place, the fantasy fights are actually two full degrees of separation from the real world. The burlesque layer was a bad decision all around, in point of fact. When Baby Doll’s dancing is made such a crucial part of the narrative and we don’t actually get to see her dance, that’s a pretty big disservice to the viewer. Plus, what’s the connection between erotic dancing and being in a mental institution? Why did these teenage mental patients have to dance for visitors to the asylum? Is that supposed to be a metaphor to represent something else in the “asylum reality”? If so, then for what?
But then came the ending. Zack, buddy, why did you stick us with that ending? I’m sure you didn’t mean it this way, but when Baby Doll said “This isn’t my story,” I felt like you had just spit in my eye. Everything about this movie, from the hackneyed voiceover that started this film to the hackneyed voiceover that ended it, revolved around the theme of “Imagination as freedom.” It’s really, really hard to swallow that pill when you threw so many of our lead characters — including our protagonist! — under the bus. Furthermore, the denouement is presented in such a way that leaves a ton of plot holes, most of which have to do with the fact that — again — we have no idea how the burlesque setting and the fantasy fights affected the story in the asylum.
Still, it’s not like the film was a complete waste. You picked an amazing ensemble of starlets and Damon Caro clearly trained them well. Tyler Bates’ music was well-above his usual standard and I simply must repeat how beautiful this film is. The costume design, cinematography, editing and effects are all jaw-dropping from start to finish. Still, Zack, I think it’s time to face facts.
I was beginning to suspect as much after Legend of the Guardians, but that wasn’t entirely your fault: You were stuck adapting a crappy story and it was your first animated feature. It’s understandable. But when you make a completely original narrative and you bungle it in such a fundamentally incompetent manner, it’s time to just accept it: You’re not a storyteller. You just aren’t. I really do hope that doesn’t discourage you, because you’ve got so many other great strengths. You’re an ace at fight scenes, you’re outstanding with VFX and you can set up a shot like the best in the business. All you need is a truly outstanding screenwriter to tell the tale for you and you’re sure to make a masterpiece.
But more than anything, you’ve got something that precious few in the business have: Balls. Enormous, heaving balls. Most other directors your age might be content to make millions with shitty rom-coms, formula action films or horror flicks loaded with nothing but jump scares. Not you. No, your filmography shows a man who’d rather shoot for greatness and end a failure than aim for mediocrity and achieve that goal. Sucker Punch was indeed a failure, but at least it failed while trying to present something that the world had never seen before. Though I can’t recommend the film, I do respect it — and those who made it — for that much.
William Thomas Berk, alias “Curiosity Inc.”