Zack Snyder’s Sucker Punch is a strange one indeed. It’s at once an all-girl action spectacle, a phantasmagoric special effects extravaganza, and a philosophical examination of destiny, freedom, and the power of imagination – an offshoot of the mind, an endless road if ever there was one. There’s no doubt that the film is a technical achievement, but when it comes to plot, character, and theme, I can’t help but wonder: What message is Snyder trying to send? With its puzzling structure and surprisingly vague opening and closing voiceover narrations, I’m forced to consider the possibility there isn’t a message at all, that the whole thing is simply an excuse for scantily-clad, gun-toting young women to fight armies of computer generated foes. The day may come when Sucker Punch is seen as a milestone of male fantasy – a video game crossed with a pinup calendar.
The internet tells us that it takes place sometime during the 1950s or ‘60s, but given the highly stylized sets, the inaccurate costume and hair designs, and the alternative rock soundtrack, the era doesn’t matter all that much. The central character is Baby Doll (Emily Browning), who, after the death of her mother and sister, is committed to an insane asylum by her father – or perhaps her stepfather – and although we know virtually nothing about him, everything he does reeks of a total sleazebag. The opening scenes contain almost no dialogue and plod ahead in slow motion, as if Snyder wanted every moment to be an action sequence. At a crucial moment, one I don’t think I should reveal, she slips into a fantasy world; the institution becomes a brothel, and the doctors, orderlies, and patients are transformed into dancers, mobsters, and officials.
It’s in this alternate reality that we meet a Russian named Madam Vera Gorski (Carla Gugino), who choreographs the burlesque numbers the girls are required to perform. With the help of music on reel-to-reel tape, she encourages the dancers to let their minds go free. This puts Baby Doll into a trance, allowing her to escape into yet another level of fantasy, a world unbounded by order or logic. The first time she does this, she enters a Chinese temple and meets The Wiseman (Scott Glenn), who speaks in proverbs and ends almost every conversation with, “Oh, and one more thing….” He tells her that her freedom depends on a quest for five items, four of which are everyday objects. The fifth one is a mystery. She’s then armed with a samurai sword and a gun, which she will use to fight gigantic Asian warriors that look like video game bosses.
Baby Doll then returns to her first fantasy world – the brothel – and while we never actually saw it happen, it seems that slipping into that second level of fantasy allows for some incredible dance moves. She’s now determined to escape. Tagging along are four young girls: Amber (Jamie Chung); Blondie (Vanessa Hudgens), who actually has black hair; the gung-ho Rocket (Jena Malone); and Rocket’s sister, the reluctant Sweet Pea (Abbie Cornish). Baby Doll’s plan is essentially to distract those who possess the necessary items with her dancing – when the men aren’t looking, the other girls will steal from them. As they go on their scavenger hunt, Baby Doll will repeatedly slip back into her second fantasy world, each time receiving mission instructions from The Wiseman. Visually, these sequences could not make less sense; when they aren’t fighting zombie soldiers in a scene that crosses Saving Private Ryan with Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, then they’re flying in a helicopter and shooting at a fire-breathing dragon, which came from a castle stronghold straight from The Lord of the Rings.
Just looking at the film is an experience unto itself. One of my favorite shots was an outdoor view of the planet Saturn, which filled almost the entire skyline. The scene featuring this involved a high-speed train carrying a bomb, which was guarded by shiny, faceless robots. But there’s a noticeable disconnect between the film’s visual creativity and narrative techniques; by the end, we will have witness two hours of top-notch special effects, but we will have learned almost nothing about the story or the characters, apart from the fact that the girls are all victims and the men are all violent and heartless. A perfect example of the latter is the owner of the brothel, Blue (Oscar Isaac), a man who truly gives new meaning to the word “reprehensible.”
I’m tempted to issue a spoiler warning in order to discuss the ending. Is it happy? That’s debatable; it depends entirely on your definitions of freedom and control. It also depends on how you interpret the final voiceover narration, which is written so poetically that it’s just shy of impenetrable. What I can say is that I left the theater more confused than exhilarated, which is bad considering all the work that went into the visuals. Is there, in fact, a point to this movie? Or is it merely a testosterone fantasy masquerading as some kind of existential commentary? I wish I knew. I can recommend Sucker Punch for its style, but when it comes to substance, I’m still trying to figure it out. And is it just me, or does the title make absolutely no sense? The closest this movie gets to a sucker punch is Baby Doll scratching her stepfather’s face. Maybe that’s something else I missed.
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