Synopsis: Close your eyes. Open your mind. You will be unprepared. “Sucker Punch” is an epic action fantasy that takes us into the vivid imagination of a young girl whose dream world provides the ultimate escape from her darker reality. Unrestrained by the boundaries of time and place, she is free to go where her mind takes her, and her incredible adventures blur the lines between what’s real and what is imaginary. She has been locked away against her will, but Babydoll (Emily Browning) has not lost her will to survive. Determined to fight for her freedom, she urges four other young girls–the outspoken Rocket (Jena Malone), the street-smart Blondie (Vanessa Hudgens), the fiercely loyal Amber (Jamie Chung) and the reluctant Sweet Pea (Abbie Cornish)–to band together and try to escape their terrible fate at the hands of their captors, Blue (Oscar Isaac), Madam Gorski (Carla Gugino) and the High Roller (Jon Hamm). Led by Babydoll, the girls engage in fantastical warfare against everything from samurais to serpents, with a virtual arsenal at their disposal. Together, they must decide what they are willing to sacrifice in order to stay alive. But with the help of a Wise Man (Scott Glenn), their unbelievable journey–if they succeed–will set them free.
Release Date: March 25, 2011 MPAA Rating: PG-13
Genre(s): Action, Fantasy
In a silent prologue, we’re introduced to Baby Doll (Emily Browning), a wide-eyed innocent who’s just been struck two crushing blows: her mother has died and her stepfather has assaulted her and her younger sister. Lashing out, Baby Doll threatens him with a gun. The stepfather, in true fairy tale fashion, is a lecherous creep who immediately arranges for Baby Doll to be shipped to Lennox House, a dreary, Gothic mental institution. The stepfather bribes an equally skeevy guard named Blue (Oscar Isaac) to lobotomize her. The film switches suddenly from this “real” world to Baby Doll’s projected fantasy: she and the other female inmates are no longer prisoners, but burlesque dancers. Their therapist Dr. Gorski is now Madame Gorski, their dance coach and den mother, and Blue is the seedy club proprietor/pimp. Baby Doll is trained to dance for a big client, the High Roller (Jon Hamm, who also plays the lobotomy doctor). Sensing a business opportunity, Blue keeps Baby Doll around until he can cash in with the High Roller. This gives Baby Doll five days to rebel against her imprisonment and escape depressive reality. She rallies four other girls to her cause, including Rocket (Jena Malone) and her protective sister Sweet Pea (Abbie Cornish), Blondie (Vanessa Hudgens) and Amber (Jamie Chung). Banding together, the girls reject their collective oppression, enacting an escape plan that capitalizes on Baby Doll’s hypnotic talents.
Every time Baby Doll “performs”, she mentally transports herself to a different fantasy environment. These environments constitute the bulk of the film’s runtime and evidently, most of the filmmakers’ attentions. They are, in order: a snowy Japanese castle where Baby Doll battles giant, CG, Gatling gun-wielding demon samurai; a WWI battlefield where our heroines, assembled for the first time, must defeat zombie, Steampunk Germans in brutal hand-to-hand trench warfare; an aerial strike against a medieval castle inhabited by Orcs and dragons (in a WWII bomber, natch); and a battle with space robots on a runaway train equipped with a bomb about to detonate. In these four levels, the girls must acquire four objects that correspond to the real world objects they use to escape the mental institution: a map, fire, a knife, and a key. This is an obvious video game conceit, wherein items unlock new levels and build to a climactic boss battle. Working with a simple “snatch and grab” concept could have freed up the filmmakers to experiment with the methods of their discovery, but instead director Zack Snyder structures a series of episodic “levels” that telegraph their turning points with repetitive music cues. The same shot (the camera pushing into/away from Emily Browning’s wide, watery eyes) begins and ends all four sequences. It is a lazy visual metaphor for the character’s psychological interiority, which could have been excused as a bid for clarity if not for an avowed rejection of clarity in many of the film’s other aspects.
The publicity for Sucker Punch declares: “You will be unprepared.” Well, not quite. Director Zack Snyder is working well within entrenched science fiction/fantasy and action movie visual cues. More to the point, anyone who has seen Snyder’s previous films, especially the blood-drenched, operatic 300& or the densely subversive superhero epic Watchmen, will recognize more than a few recycled shots in the director’s latest effort. Snyder is a hyperactive pop culture auteur whose body of work reveals a deep-rooted interest in unsettling genre conventions while fetishizing their visual signifiers with gloriously exacting ramped slow motion. The ambition of this film–to simultaneously deconstruct and entertain, to subvert gender roles while titillating an audience with fleshy T&A–while admirable, is never fully achieved. Snyder wants to have his cake and eat it, too, but for a combination of factors including studio pressure, a PG-13 rating and indecisive creative direction, the resultant film is only fitfully successful. In its most thrilling moments, Sucker Punch is an exciting action fantasy with smart ideas about sex and violence, but these moments are fleeting.
While the overall quality of Sucker Punch is subject to vacillations germane to genre considerations, audience expectations, and a finished film that’s obviously undergone drastic content modifications, one truism remains: the writing is terrible. On a basic level, all the dialogue is perfunctory, serving only to supply the audience with information on the next plot point. The girls don’t really have anything to say to each other, except when it pertains to planning the next mission or delivering shoehorned back-story. The storytelling is visceral and any attempts to massage weepy character moments seem contrived and uninteresting. Compared to the way Snyder can choreograph a fight scene that conveys the bonds of sisterhood and sorority, meaningful monologues seem stilted.
There is a case to be made for Snyder’s camp sensibilities, as evidenced in both 300 and Watchmen. Playing with a defined sensibility, maybe most usefully classified as “mash-up badassitude,” Snyder relies on cliches, archetypes and repetitive action to guide the plot. Besides Gugino’s Dr. Gorski, none of the other characters are identified by their “real” names. Everyone is playing a role. Snyder and co-writer Steve Shibuya are ribbing the artificiality of archetypal genre conventions, but rarely does their acknowledgement transcend the muddled artificiality of the script. Only one character, the Obi Wan-ish guru/guardian/godfather Wise Man (Scott Glenn) finds real humor. He exists solely to outline the girls’ mission, bestowing warmed-over “wisdom,” before disappearing from the narrative, only to reappear during the next fight sequence. This kind of self-conscious goofiness works fine for that character but falls flat when the screenplay indulges in distracting voice over. The dialogue is never good, but the voice over narration is truly terrible. The last moments of the film are guided by a monologue that strikes a note of triumphant female empowerment that frankly isn’t justified by the preceding events. The script’s pseudo-philosophical aphorisms are fine in self-parody, but baffling when played straight. Messages about “girl power” are dated and silly (so ’90s!), especially when contrasted with the legitimately intriguing deconstruction of gender power dynamics that the film hints at, but never fully commits to.
The story is a quagmire, but Sucker Punch delivers on its promise of visual cinematic excess. Absent any narrative repercussions, the production is designed to the hilt: the fantasy landscapes are awash in detail, busy mini-movies with their own narratives being played out in every corner of the frame. The most impressive fantasy level is the World War One battle, a desolate landscape of carnage with a steampunk twist. Snyder builds the sequence with special effects, costuming, production design, and stunt work blending seamlessly to produce the most accomplished of the film’s many meta-universes. We’re dropped into a narrative in medias res and yanked out of it just as fast, but in between we’re given a taste of a video game I would actually like to play. Unfortunately, not all of the fantasy levels are as engrossing or fully developed, which speaks to the unevenness of the film as a whole. Despite its disappointments, the advertising for the film has been fairly upfront about the kaleidoscopic surrealism of its premise. If you came to see hot chicks decimating robots with samurai swords, Sucker Punch doesn’t disappoint.
Cast and Crew
- Director(s): Zack Snyder
- Producer(s): Zack SnyderSteve Shibuya
- Screenwriter(s): Emily Browning (Baby Doll)Abbie Cornish (Sweet Pea)Jena Malone (Rocket)
- Story: Vanessa Hudgens (Blondie)
- Cast: Jamie Chung (Amber)Carla Gugino (Madam Gorski) William HoyLarry FongRick Carter
- Cinematographer: Tyler BatesMarius De Vries
- Production Designer(s): Animal Logic
- Costume Designer: Digiscope
- Casting Director(s): Moving Picture Company (MPC)Pixomondo
- Music Score:
- Music Performed By: Prime Focus
- Country Of Origin: USACanada