This is the part where I would normally do a bit of an introduction to the day’s column. Predictably enough, this is always the last bit I write, but it’s late and I’m kinda sleepy. Let’s get to it, what do you say.
Zack Snyder is probably insane.
So. Sucker Punch. Um. Well now. While it contains elements of other, better told stories, this is certainly one unique damn movie.
It’s the 1960s and Babydoll, played by Emily Browning, is a 20 year old girl whose mother has died, leaving her and her little sister with their stepfather, a sleaze of a man who tries to force himself on Babydoll the night of the funeral. Fighting him off, she locks herself in her room only for him to divert his attentions to little sis. Babydoll manages to get out her window and retrieve her stepfather’s gun from his desk but she misses him and accidentally kills her sister with a ricochet. Bad Dad then takes her to the local insane asylum and has her put on the list for a lobotomy. I’ve heard of some nasty plans made to keep someone’s silence, but this one is all kinds of creepy.
In the last second before the procedure, Babydoll retreats into a fantasy world where the asylum is a nightclub-cum-brothel and she and the other girls are the entertainment. Dr Gorski the psychiatrist is now Madame Gorski the dance instructor, and the head orderly Blue is the boss of the club. Babydoll is expected to dance just like all the other girls, but every time she does so, she finds herself in another level of fantasy, this time populated with 20-feet tall demon samurai, orcs and dragons, steam-powered German zombie WW1 soldiers, and robots with nuclear bombs. Exactly. That’s what I said. While Babydoll’s mind is in these worlds, her body is dancing in the club and leaving everyone watching her entirely captivated. She realises that she can recruit the other girls to retrieve items they can use to escape while she distracts the target with her dancing. All kinds of weird shit ensues.
Whatever else he may or may not be, there can be no dispute that Zack Snyder is an astonishing visual fantasist. Some of the imagery in this film is truly brain-melting. Every single frame of this movie has been designed to within an inch of its life. While it is entirely gorgeous to look at however, it is also somewhat soulless. Aside from the opening sequence and the coda, the whole flick takes place in one fantasy world or another which kind of cripples any investment we might have in these characters’ efforts. We already know it’s not real so how bad can it get? How that affects your overall enjoyment will depend on your tolerance for beautiful girls in skimpy – actually no, they left skimpy in the dust miles ago. What’s less than skimpy? – outfits blasting guns and taking on all-comers. My tolerance is fairly high. Even as I was enjoying it on a surface level, I was terribly aware of the fact that this story of supposed female empowerment is filled with beautiful girls in skimpy outfits with big guns. Smarter writers with more time on their hands than me have discussed the implications of this fetishised feminism/misogyny at great length, so I will merely point out that the director, both credited screenwriters and the costume designer are all male.
As I was saying, Sucker Punch is breath-taking to look at, particularly in the action scenes. Two shots in particular stood out for me: a long, side angle of Babydoll facing down one of the demon samurai in a snow-dusted temple courtyard seconds before the whoop-ass is uncanned; and the moment where the dragon rears up on the castle roof, wings spread, roaring at the sky. The effects department more than earned their keep on this gig. On the flip side, the quality of the acting overall is less than stellar. Ever the apologist, I would argue that that could be the intent. Remember this is all a fantasy world, and a hyper-stylised one at that. Naturalistic acting would be as out of place here as a really, really out of place thing. I’m sorry, it’s been a long week and I’m all out of ammo for my simile gun. Credit where is due though: Oscar Isaac is effectively sinister as Blue, even in a baby-blue sequinned jacket, and Abbie Cornish and Jena Malone as the sisters Sweet Pea and Rocket are the standouts of the beautiful girl contingent.
Snyder has cribbed from so many other sources in this, his first “original” screenplay that it became a private running joke for me. I suppose you could turn it into a drinking game if you wanted to. His orcs are straight out of Lord of the Rings; the clockwork soldiers have walked in from Hellboy; there’s an episode of Firefly in there too (bonus points and my undying admiration if you can spot that one. Answers in the comments please); hell, he even rips himself off at one point! The flare-strapped-to-a-gas-canister bomb is a direct lift from his Dawn of the Dead remake.
I don’t love this film, I think the subtext is too at odds with itself for that to be possible, but I don’t hate it either. Snyder is at least trying to tell interesting stories in interesting ways, and I admire that. More of Jamie Chung in a corset and fishnets would have been good though.