starring: Emily Browning, Abbie Cornish, Jena Malone, Vanessa Hudgens, Jamie Chung, Carla Gugino, Oscar Isaac, Scott Glenn, Jon Hamm
written by: Zack Snyder & Steve Shibuya
directed by: Zack Snyder
MPAA: Rated PG-13 for thematic material involving sexuality, violence and combat sequences, and for language.
Hmm. What to say about Sucker Punch? There seems to be an overwhelming critical rush to outright condemn it, but I won’t be doing that. It’s not that bad. I’m not sure it’s bad at all. It is what it is: another unabashedly bombastic rock opera from Zack Snyder, who previously brought us the homoerotic landmark 300 and the incredibly ambitious but flawed Watchmen. This is perhaps his most theatrical film yet, as underscored by the fact that it literally opens with a curtain being drawn across a stage, immediately calling to mind the prologue of Moulin Rouge. And that’s not Snyder’s only Baz Luhrmann homage: he also makes prominent use of anachronistic pop songs throughout the film (which is set vaguely in the ’60s), frequently recorded by the actors themselves.
As the curtain first opens, we see a young blonde woman named Baby Doll (Emily Browning, a striking mixture of Dianna Agron and Amanda Seyfried, who was once attached to this role) sitting in her dark bedroom on a stormy night, clutching her knees to her chest while a pounding arrangement of “Sweet Dream (Are Made of This),” sung by Browning herself, booms over the soundtrack. From these first moments, this is unmistakably a Zack Snyder film, for better and worse. It is, to put it mildly, unapologetic in its extreme stylization. I shudder to imagine what Snyder’s personal concept of “overdoing it” might be.
Within a matter of slo-moments, we learn that Baby Doll’s mother has just died, leaving her and her younger sister alone with their sexually predatory stepfather, who barely waits for his wife’s grave to be filled in before attacking them. Baby Doll accidentally shoots her sister in an attempt to kill him, and she is locked away in a mental asylum. The asylum is run by the villainous Blue Jones (Oscar Isaac), tempered somewhat by the compassionate presence of a psychiatrist named Dr. Vera Gorski (Carla Gugino). Once she’s inside, Baby Doll makes the acquaintance of several other inmates: Blondie (Vanessa Hudgens), Amber (Jamie Chung), and sisters Sweet Pea (Abbie Cornish) and Rocket (Jena Malone).
But when Baby Doll learns that she is scheduled to be lobotomized in five days, she begins to hallucinate a fantasy world (loosely reminiscent of Dancer in the Dark) where, rather than a mental asylum, the girls all live in a cavernous brothel; Blue is their pimp, and Dr. Gorski is their madam. But wait — that’s not the last alternate layer of reality! Within the brothel world, Baby Doll projects herself and her friends into yet another dimension — but what’s the kick? — where they have to slash and shoot their way through armies of orcs, robot samurai, and undead Nazis. They are transported to this place whenever Baby Doll is called upon to dance for men. Because dance is her weapon, you see. Once the other girls see how powerful she is, they all begin hatching a plan to escape from their captors. But will they make it out alive?
So, okay. I feel like a film can only really be judged negatively if it fails at what it’s trying to be. This is why I continue defending Burlesque, because it set out to be exactly what it is. I’m not saying the finished product is a masterpiece, but insofar as no film can realistically be expected to please everyone, Burlesque had its queeny camp-loving target audience directly in its cross-hairs. So, it’s difficult to say Sucker Punch has failed, particularly since it seems to exist in a world entirely of its own creation. It certainly succeeds at creating extreme moods. A pervasive sense of emo-goth gloom permeates the film.
What can be criticized about it? If I had to pick one thing, it would be that the film is utterly joyless and self-serious. For a film that spends so much of its running time depicting beautiful, scantily-clad young women wielding giant weapons, Sucker Punch is one hell of a downer. This perhaps stems from Snyder’s noble insistence that this is actually a feminist film depicting the brutal subjugation of women, and refusing to pander with titillation. Yes, its comely young cast parades around dressed like steampunk Playboy bunnies, but this is not an arousing film: there is no sex, no nudity, no girl-on-girl kissing. There isn’t even any dancing, since we are transported to Baby Doll’s warrior realm whenever she is called upon to show off her moves. The joylessness also extends to the action scenes, which feel oddly labored and perfunctory.
So what we have here is a big-budget Girl, Interrupted if it was directed by Russ Meyer from a script by James Cameron. Or something like that. I can’t even really describe it as campy, because it cloaks itself so earnestly in the pain of female victimization. The acting, for what it is, is adequate. The otherworldly Browning makes an indelibly quivering impression as Baby Doll. Malone and Cornish, the most accomplished of the young actresses, each commit completely to the straight-faced silliness.
Oscar Isaac, who resembles a more handsome David Krumholtz, is suitably despicable as Blue. Gugino, one of the most underrated actresses working today, is compelling and sympathetic as Dr. Gorski. Perhaps the greatest guilty pleasure here is seeing former Disney cutie-pie Hudgens wielding bazookas and swinging axes, and she does so with aplomb. And yes, somehow Jon Hamm was roped into joining this film; he appears onscreen for approximately one minute, and seems as confused to be there as we are to see him.
I feel like I need to apologize for not hating it more, but I found Sucker Punch to be visually stunning and pleasingly operatic. If you’re looking to be walloped with a continual and visceral wave of emotion, mood, and style, this one’s for you.