I had a terribly hard time writing this, my first review for this blog. I went to the theater to see Sucker Punch, the latest effort from Zack Snyder. Yet after the lights went up and the credits began to roll, I still wasn’t quite sure what I had seen.
Oh, I wasn’t puzzled with the movie itself, mind you. Several reputable critics are on record as calling Sucker Punch confusing. With all due respect, I beg to differ. This movie takes place on three different levels of “reality,” one of which is questionably real and at least one of which is unquestionably unreal. Yet the shifts between them are never confusing, and the stakes in each scene are always clear. Some of the symbolism (which this movie has, in spades) doesn’t seem to match up one-to-one with the level above it, but as everything kept moving and looking gorgeous, I was disinclined to care. Probably most people who aren’t looking for another way to insult Zach Snyder will feel as I did.
There was one thing that I confess to being confused by, but it was on a meta-level. I try to read books and watch films with an eye toward what the author wants me to take away from it. So — what was I supposed to take away from Sucker Punch? If Snyder’s purpose was to treat me to a two-hour visual feast, then mission accomplished. He may consider me well and truly stuffed. If he wanted to teach me a lesson or make me care about the ciphers of characters on-screen, then I’m afraid we’ll have to chalk this one up as an interesting failure.
For those of you who have not yet seen the film:
The first level — reality, I suppose, though a highly stylized Snyder-esque version of it — concerns a young unnamed girl (Emily Browning) who is committed to an asylum by her stepfather. Angered that he wasn’t the beneficiary of his wife’s will, he kills one of her two daughters and frames Browning’s character. At the asylum, she is to be lobotomized by arrangement with one of the staff, Blue Jones (Oscar Isaac), presumably so she cannot contest her stepfather’s claim to the will nor inherit herself. The lobotomy cannot be performed immediately, however; it must wait five days for a specialist (Jon Hamm) to arrive.
The second level is entered through the “psychiatric treatments” of Dr. Gorski (Carla Gugino), who counsels her patients that fantasies can be as real as they desire. At this level, the asylum is actually a high-class strip joint and brothel, and the female inmates its unwilling prisoners and scantily-clad star attractions. Browning’s character, Baby Doll, gradually teams up with four of the other girls: Sweet Pea (Abbie Cornish), Rocket (Jena Malone), Blondie (Vanessa Hudgens), and Amber (Jamie Chung). Gorski is there, as the girls’ dance instructor; Jones runs the establishment and controls Gorski. We quickly learn that in five days, the High Roller (Hamm again) will be coming for Baby Doll. The girls concoct a plan to escape centered on Baby Doll’s undisciplined dancing, which nevertheless seems to have a hypnotic quality — as she distracts key people by putting herself on display, the other girls will steal the items they need to make their escape.
These items were revealed to Baby Doll in yet a third level of reality by a mentor figure (Scott Glenn) who continues to crop up throughout the story. It is to this level of reality that we vanish whenever Baby Doll dances. In some fantastic amalgam world composed of both fantasy and science fiction that includes both dragons and zombie Nazis (no, I’m serious), Baby Doll and her cohort are a highly specialized fighting squad who can perform superhuman feats without bruising any exposed skin or mussing their perfect hair and makeup. Normally I deride these sorts of atmospheres as not being realistic. But since that’s rather obviously what Snyder wants to achieve, it seems a ridiculous complaint to lodge here.
First, the positive: The CGI in this movie is seamlessly integrated with the live action and set design to create an unbelievable yet gorgeous visual world through which our characters can move. The action is never, not for a moment, boring. Snyder has assembled a lovely anachronistic soundtrack which accompanies the movie and points up particular actions and attitudes. And the punchline to the story (largely based on the inclusion of a single character at the movie’s end, in a quite different level of reality) is humorous while making one reinterpret what exactly “reality” even means.
However, as I said earlier, if Snyder meant to make me care about the characters in the film, then he failed miserably. The whole story is shot through with mythic resonance — we never hear the girls called by their real names — and Snyder successfully plays on tropes and archetypes in such a way that what happens next feels as though it should have been expected, even though we have only the barest details about any of the three worlds. But because of that, it becomes painfully obvious that these characters largely exist to be moved around like pieces on a chessboard. One does not really care when a piece is taken in that context, and so some deaths don’t have the emotional resonance they probably should.
As I walked out of the cinema, I turned to my friend and remarked that Sucker Punch represented the triumph of style and story over character and emotion. Yet one thought haunts me — is that what Snyder was trying to achieve? I honestly don’t know. His message to the audience, delivered rather obviously at the end, seems to be meant seriously. The idea of appending a message to such a movie, on the other hand, is laughable. Then again, the message itself is as generic as the story, so… One can spin oneself into a web trying to figure out whether Snyder meant us to care. Perhaps that’s the reaction he meant us to have all along?
I’m not sorry to have seen Sucker Punch. It was a thrilling culmination to a wonderful evening out, and the very definition of “popcorn movie.” (Pity I didn’t buy any.) I will grab it on DVD, and I will probably watch it several times more, if only to lose myself in the lush atmosphere and first-rate special effects. But having seen it, I am now more happy then ever that Snyder is attached to the upcoming Superman movie as its director, where he can give us perfect visual effects — and not as its writer, where I suspect he would give us rather less from the Superman mythos than we need.