Over the next few weeks you’re going to see a lot of reviews for Zack Snyder’s Sucker Punch. Some will be good. No, really. Many will be stinkers. But none of them are going to sit on the fence. Sucker Punch is like marmite; you’ll either love it or you’ll hate it.
Framed for her sister’s murder by her wicked stepfather, Babydoll (Emily Browning) has just five days to escape from the Dickensian insane asylum where she’s been committed before she’s lobotomised. Struggling to cope with the horror of her surroundings, she retreats into a fantasy world where the asylum is a Moulin Rouge-style brothel, the imprisoned girls (and they are all nubile young girls) are showgirl/hookers and the asylum staff, brutal orderly Blue (Oscar Isaacs) and sympathetic Dr Gorski (Carla Gugino), are pimp and madam respectively. Teaming up with the feistiest gals on the cellblock, sisters Rocket (Jena Malone) and Sweet Pea (Abbie Cornish), Amber (Jamie Chung) and non-blonde Blondie (Vanessa Hudgens), Babydoll plots their escape, sucking the girls into a deeper level of fantasy where, clad in leather fetish gear and wielding swords and machine guns, they must battle giant samurai, futuristic robots, dragons and steampunk zombies while Zen master and guru Wise Man (Scott Glenn) guides them to the objects they’ll need to escape in the real world.
Like Pan’s Labyrinth remade by a masturbating gun nut on acid with a schoolgirl fetish (not necessarily a bad thing…), Sucker Punch is not a subtle film. But then director Zack Snyder is not a subtle man. While his 2004 remake of George A. Romero’s Dawn of the Dead was arguably better than the original, eschewing Romero’s heavy-handed satire in favour of zombie babies and full-on Armageddon, his adaptation of Frank Miller’s sword-and-sandals graphic novel 300, was possibly the most homoerotic blockbuster since Top Gun, with Gerard Butler in a pair of trunks SHOUTING REALLY, REALLY LOUDLY for 2 hours while splashing gore over the audience and his reverent adaptation of Alan Moore’s classic Watchmen was notable for Billy Crudup’s giant blue schlong (probably the scariest and most impressive use of IMAX yet). His films are never less than stunningly realised, visual feasts. But they’re not exactly drowning in depth. Whatever characterisation and wit Dawn of the Dead had it can thank writer James Gunn for and, let’s face it, Watchmen and 300 are comic book adaptations. That’s right all you fanboy-geeks out there; comics! It doesn’t matter how many times you tell everyone they’re ‘graphic novels’, deep down they know and you know you’re reading a comic. For all their po-faced solemnity, your average Jilly Cooper has more characterisation than anything Frank Miller or Alan Moore has done. Don’t believe me? Try reading Alan Moore’s Voice of the Fire or sitting through Miller’s film of The Spirit. I double dare you. So if you’re going into Sucker Punch expecting a cerebral meditation on the emancipation of women or an expose of the American mental health industry, you’re out of luck. But if you’re looking to wallow in the violent, adolescent fantasises of a disturbed 13-year old boy with Attention Deficit Disorder then pull up a chair, Sucker Punch is the flick you’ve been waiting for.
Opening with a bravura sequence where Babydoll’s mum dies, her step-dad tries to rape her, she accidentally shoots her little sister and she’s committed to a mental hospital all in the time it takes Emily Browning to deliver a breathy Cocteau Twins-style cover of The Eurythmics Sweet Dreams Are Made Of This on the soundtrack, Sucker Punch is both a gloriously incoherent mess and thumpingly obvious. A wizened Scott Glenn (having enormous fun impersonating a Kung Fu-era David Carradine) spells out…Every. Single. Plot. Point. For. You. It’s just unfortunate that none of it makes any sense. The opening scenes illustrate both the strengths of the film and its glaring weaknesses. The film works best as a silent movie; a throwback to the 1920s. As long as Snyder fills the frame with action and the soundtrack with music Sucker Punch kinda, sorta holds the attention. As soon as any of the characters are required to speak or emote in any way the film hits the brick wall that is the script.
While it looks gorgeous, the film is vapid and empty, lacking even basic characterisation. The girls don’t develop, they change costumes. The script by Snyder and Steve Shibuya lacks any coherent narrative sense, the dialogue is risible and the film looks and feels like a video game (the girls are given missions, the girls complete the missions, the girls move on to the next mission) but lacks the visceral pleasure of actually playing. It’s like sitting on a mate’s couch waiting for your turn playing Call of Duty, watching as he machine guns baddies; boring, repetitive, unsatisfying. The constant flitting between layers of fantasy doesn’t really work; we never spend enough (or any) time in the real world with the characters. We never get to know them or care about them so it never feels like they are in any danger in Babydoll’s dream world. They’re two-dimensional ciphers, figments of a disturbed girl’s imagination. We’re not emotionally invested in them so when bad things start to happen to them, we don’t care. It’s hard to care about a character when we’re not even sure they exist. Even when the film comments on it’s own artificiality, it feels artificial, forced.
While Scott Glenn and Carla Gugino are obviously enjoying hamming it up and Oscar Isaac and Gerard Plunkett make great boo-hiss villains (in fact one audience member swears there was an almost subliminal hissing on the soundtrack every time Isaac’s Blue swaggered onscreen), our heroines (with the possible exception of Jena Malone) deliver their lines in the flat, stilted fashion of fembots; their performances as real as their enormous fake eyelashes. And while it may be something of a sexist, misogynist cliché, aren’t mental girls supposed to be the sexiest? Not in Sucker Punch. Never have beautiful young women wearing leather corsets and firing heavy calibre automatic weapons been quite so unsexy.
Sucker Punch’s biggest problem however is it takes itself waaaaaay too seriously. What should be a sexy, violent, entertaining genre mash-up winds up po-faced and pretentious. Snyder seems to be under the impression that he’s making some kind of statement about female empowerment and the power of fantasy. Or maybe his message is that women can only triumph in their dreams. Or that strippers indulge in feverishly violent revenge fantasies while dancing. Which is going to make that next visit to Spearmint Rhino really uncomfortable for all the wrong reasons. Who knows what message Zack is trying to tell us? Maybe Zack does.
Ultimately, Sucker Punch just isn’t that much fun. This is a movie where leather-clad vixens piloting a WW2 Lancaster bomber engage in an aerial dogfight with a fire-breathing dragon. That should be fun. A little blonde girl in pigtails fighting giant samurai should be fun. Any movie where scantily-clad stripper/hookers battle clockwork steam-powered German zombie soldiers should be fun. And it is. Sorta. Kinda. But not really. You can never quite shake the feeling that Sucker Punch could have been so much better. If only it had had a script. Or a heart. Or a brain. Maybe one day Snyder will release a Director’s Cut on DVD with an extra half hour that adds depth and nuance to the film. If he does, I’ll buy it. I’ll probably love it. Until then, Sucker Punch will remain probably both the best and the worst film I’ll see all year.
Emily Browning, Abbie Cornish, Jena Malone, Jamie Chung, Vanessa Hudgens, Scott Glenn, Carla Gugino, Oscar Isaac, Jon Hamm, Gerard Plunkett
Zack Snyder & Steve Shibuya