BRIEF SYNOPSIS: Institutionalized by her stepfather after her mother’s death, Baby Doll retreats into an alternate world which helps her devise a plan to escape.
PROS: Well, at one point I saw biplanes and zeppelins. That’s got to be a good thing, right?
CONS: Ridiculous action sequences, including repeated, pointless use of slow motion; quest looks and feels more like a videogame than a movie; slapdash mashup of images ripped off from multiple movie genres; overwrought soundtrack; fetishization of women; and, despite the presence of a number of actors, not one actual character.
Sucker Punch gives away its game before the end of its prologue. In a montage set to the background of Emily Browning’s cover of The Eurythmics’s “Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This”), Baby Doll (also Browning, and yes, that’s her name) defends her sister from her stepfather’s advances after their mother’s death and winds up in an institution known as “The Lennox House.” This of course will mean nothing to anybody over the age of thirty, or who didn’t grow up in a box, but it shows exactly where director Zack Snyder’s mind is throughout the entire enterprise. (He also receives story credit, and co-wrote the screenplay with Steve Shibuya.) No need for those who think of anything that happened prior to Gulf War I is ancient history and can’t quite get the hang of Google to scratch their heads, I’ll explain: The Eurythmics’s lead singer was a platinum-haired woman named Annie Lennox. Snyder’s attempt at humor does not liven the events in a joyless movie but underscores his own lack of interest in making a film about adults or even human beings but instead creating a twelve-year-old boy’s adolescent fantasy about what women fantasize about.
That may be reading too much into Snyder’s intentions, but it’s difficult not to, because Sucker Punch, I think, is about retreat into fantasy or fantasy as empowerment, if it’s about anything at all. No doubt Snyder feels empowered; his movie (and despite a co-writer, ultimately it is his movie) strip-mines so many images from every conceivable adventure genre and exploiting it in green-hued first-person-shooter glory that he must feel like a cinematic Master of the Universe, a Noah Cross of the Collective Unconscious. He may be right, but his universe is a very small place, one which may borrow some historical artifacts (biplanes, Zeppelins, World War I trench warfare) but lacks depth. Most twelve-year-olds try to put history in some kind of context; Snyder’s only interest in the subject is as a place where you might find wicked cool props. Frankly, he’d lose even if he tried to hide behind the excuse of fantasy; fantasy has to have context or it becomes meaningless. Such arguments might be above Snyder’s head, despite his attempts at profundity.
Nonetheless, the movie begins. Under the threat of lobotomy, Baby Doll retreats from the Lennox House into a bordello led by Blue (Oscar Isaac), who runs the brothel like a prison–not a real prison (there’s no room in Sucker Punch for anything resembling reality), understand, but one that you might see in Caged Heat, or Chained Heat, or any women-in-prison movie that seemed difficult to miss during the home video craze of the 1980s (though, alas, Isaac is no Bridgette Nielsen). There is a Big Spender (Jon Hamm, as wooden as he is beautiful) who will spend a lot of money on one of the girls, and he believes Baby Doll will be the one. He instructs Ms. Gorsky (Carla Gugino, in an Eastern European accent so ridiculous that she sounds like a transvestite version of Yakov Smirnoff) to prepare her. The brothel, it seems, is theater; the women stage elaborate erotic fantasies for their customers before taking them to private rooms. During the instruction, Gorsky instructs Baby Doll to dance to music completely at odds with its 1950s period (Emiliana Torrini’s cover of Jefferson Airplane’s “White Rabbit”), and finds herself suddenly dressed in an outfit ripped off from Sailor Moon and standing in a Japanese courtyard, where she meets a Wise Man (Scott Glenn, puréeing what little dignity he has left) who tells her that she can escape the brothel if she faces five challenges…all of which involving battle of some kind or other. When her “dance” is done, she hatches an escape plot with fellow inmates Sweet Pea (Abbie Cornish), Rocket (Jena Malone), Blondie (Vanessa Hudgens), and Amber (Jamie Chung).
Okay, stop right there.
Sweet Pea? Blondie? Really?!
If Snyder is trying to blend erotica, fantasy and action, then the names he gives his characters only underscore his lack of understanding of the former, and his setup indicates complete ignorance of fantasy. We’re never completely sure if Baby Doll’s retreat into Blue’s brothel is an actual leap down the rabbit hole, or if it just a construct of her own imagination, but let’s say, for the sake of argument, that Baby Doll is in fact mentally stepping away from reality; would this be the sort of mental landscape she would retreat into? If it’s an actual leap into the Red Light district of Faerie, then wouldn’t her subsequent leaps into the territory’s trench lines, castles, B-25 bombers, dragons, trains armed with nuclear weapons, have to make some kind of sense for being there? Granted, Michael Swanwick’s industrialized landscape in The Dragons of Babel (the dragonslaying sequence reminded me quite a bit of Sprath’s cover art) may have been a polluted, war-torn mess, but at least he tied everything into some kind of sense. Snyder jams everything together because he thinks it looks cool. His characters (a charitable term here) squeeze into cleavage-focusing combat gear, fetishizing each woman from eye to extremity, yet they are all curiously sexless. And his handling of action hasn’t matured past the slow-motion, gravity-defying calisthenics of 300 .
Even trying to make sense of the most basic elements becomes difficult. The “story” feels cobbled from works as diverse as Brazil, Shutter Island, Eastern Promises, most of Akira Kurosawa’s samurai movies, The Great Escape, The Story of O, and, of course, The Wizard of Oz, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and The Lord of the Rings, but with only a smattering of the elements, again, without any understanding of what made them work. The initial setting is 1950s Vermont visually misses its mark by a good ten years, especially in its use of music; Snyder may have thought his choices clever, but each tune, even Alison Mosshart’s and Carla Azar’s cover of The Beatles’s “Tomorrow Never Knows” lacks aural interest.
I would love to say that buried under Sucker Punch‘s pile of digital dung is an interesting picture, but I simply cannot bring myself to do it. Snyder, who has never met a movie he couldn’t leech of subtlety, rationality, common sense, logic, or respect for itself or its audience, has unleashed every image inhabiting the recesses of hid id and superego, and shown them to be as interesting as the patterns made when chimps toss their feces onto the walls of their cages at the zoo. And his visual realizations, somewhat groundbreaking four years ago, have become cliché. While I’m sure studios, traditionally deaf to criticism, wanted to reward him for making Watchmen a financial success, maybe they’ll take Sucker Punch as a reassessment of his abilities, before he and his CGI team gangrape the reboot of the Superman franchise…or any other audience member’s senses.