film review : Sucker Punch
Monday, April 4th, 2011
I’ve never really had anything bad to say about Zach Snyder in the past. I found his remake of Dawn of the Dead passable (it’s a tall order to stand toe-to-toe with Romero’s classic, so he should take “passable” as a compliment), and his next two films, 300 and Watchmen, were admirable adaptations, yet one suspects they succeeded largely by virtue of their adherence to the source material. Granted, Watchmen did deviate from it’s source in relation to the ending, but I’ll blaspheme and suggest that this improved upon the original, doing away with the cheesier aspects of the “Architects of Fear” climax native to the comic (That’s right, comic; If you wanna be a pretentious asshole and call it a graphic novel because you can’t accept that “funny books” can be art, then you shouldn’t be reading them). I’ve never seen his “sword & sorcery & owls” film, Legend of the Guardians, but I hear surprisingly good things. That, too, was an adaptation. Soon one began to wonder what the director would do if allowed to pen and shoot a film purely of his own design, which brings us to Sucker Punch. Here Snyder was given full reign to do as he wished, complete with upwards of $80 million to do it with. What have we (and likely the higher ups at Warner Bros.) learned from this little experiment? Never do that shit again. Zack Snyder cannot create without a blueprint, or perhaps just won’t, because that’s not really what he’s done here. He’s borrowed from countless previous works of film and literature (Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Kill Bill and Moulin Rouge to name a few) and generically regurgitated current genre infatuations (gun porn, steampunk, mecha), then half-assedly duct taped it all together with a plot that simultaneously objectifies and sympathises with the victimization of its female cast and his trademark editing style (slow it down, speed it up, repeat).
The film follows Baby Doll (Emily Browning), who is wrongfully imprisoned in an asylum following the accidental death of her kid sister, the result of Baby’s attempt to stop their stepfather from molesting them. Orderly and part-time rapist Blue (Oscar Issac) agrees to fudge the paperwork so Baby Doll will be lobotomized later that week. At this point, the film shifts to Baby’s perspective, and as her mind crumbles under the weight of her predicament, she re-envisions the asylum as a brothel, with Blue cast as a villainous pimp, while she and the rest of the mental patients (Abbie Cornish, Jena Malone, Vanessa Hudgens and Jamie Chung) are seen as cabaret performers and sex workers. Baby and the others hatch a plan to gain their freedom, the major points of which are seen as a series of over-the-top battles that takes the girls from the combating undead Germans in trenches of WW I to slaying dragons in a fantasy-themed universe. Throughout their trials, they are aided by the Wise Man (Scott Glen) in their quest to recover the items needed to make their escape, before the mysterious High Roller (Jon Hamm) comes to take Baby away (in actuality the doctor coming to perform the lobotomy).
Thematically, Sucker Punch looks and feels like a video game (traversing different levels, each with objectives to achieve and items to collect, all the while slaughtering faceless goons) to such a degree that one wonders why Snyder didn’t just make a goddamn video game. The action sequences were promoted as the highlight of the show, but emulate gaming conventions so closely that you become bored, as you would if a buddy were hogging the 360 controller and you’re left patiently waiting your turn. I didn’t want to watch Sucker Punch; I wanted to play it, and since its not the game it so resembles, I had to watch passively as some other asshole (Snyder) had all the fun.
The sexual subtext of the film is somewhat troubling. Snyder sees threat of rape and abuse of women as the only way to inject drama into his plot. I don’t normally side with Gail Simone and her “Women in Refrigerators” spiel, but here is a work purely predicated on the threat of sexual violence. When we delve into the brothel hallucination, the women are then regarded as sex objects and victims, but as they are forced prostitutes, this isn’t terribly out of place. What I don’t get is why this characterization extends into Baby Doll’s battle hallucinations. If we are in her mind, and this is her attempt to psychologically rise above her role as a victim, why are she and her compatriots shown as scantily clad in their finest stripper-garb (Browning in her barely-there sailor fuku gets the worst of this), with copious slo-mo upskirt shots and fetishistic camera lingering? Maybe Snyder was trying to make a point and force the audience to be complicit in the abuse of the girls by arousing us, then cutting back to their victimization, but I think that’s giving him too much credit. Rather, I think he wanted to draw in the female audience with ass-kicking heroines and the teenage boy crowd with as much titillation as he could fit into a PG-13 movie.
There’s not much to say about the cast, as there isn’t much acting going on in the film. It may seem like a running theme in my criticism to devalue the work of actresses in action films, but I don’t feel at fault. Hollywood and the filmmakers that populate it are to blame for seldom allowing leading ladies to do anything other than look sexy and strike some action poses. Emily Browning may well be a capable actress, but this movie’s not giving me a ton to go on, as all she’s tasked with is some wire-fu (if that’s even her and not a double doing the stunts) and flashing her baby blues. Otherwise, her character is an cipher, with no personality to speak of save being extremely unsure and bewildered in what are supposedly her own damn empowerment fantasies. And she’s the most fleshed-out female character in the film! The other ladies are handed swords and assault rifles (By the way, can someone explain to me how a woman in the midst of a psychotic day dream can anticipate the next half-century’s advances in firearm technology?) and told to look tough. That’s about it, though its worth noting the male portion of the cast doesn’t get much more to do, other than be lecherous and menacing, with the sole exception of Scott Glen (best remembered as Jack Crawford in Silence of the Lambs), who comes within a hair’s breadth of creating something that could reasonably be called a character.
Sucker Punch makes one thing clear: Zach Snyder hasn’t got an original idea in his head. I have no problem with homage; some of my favorite filmmakers (Tarantino, Rodriguez) made careers out of paying tribute to the films they love, but they always put something of their own into play. Snyder hijacks elements from other works wholesale and pastes them all together in his soulless 90-minute music video. It’s like he saw Hellboy and said “Hey, that Kronen guy’s pretty neat! But you know what would be even cooler?! A whole army of steampunk, clockwork Nazis!!!”. And then he did it. He didn’t add or subtract anything from the equation, just said “More!”. Orcs that look pretty much as they did in Jackson’s Rings trilogy later appear. Throw a gaggle of hot ladies, couple of Frazetta dragons and some generic robots (sure, why the fuck not?) and as far as Snyder is concerned, you’ve got one hell of a movie. As far as I’m concerned, he’s a deluded moron, and the sum of those parts equals a loud and flashy show that reveals itself to be a sad, hollow adolescent masturbatory aid.
- Adam Rosina