Friday, March 25, 2011

Sucker Punch

After spending his career creating film adaptations of other people's content, Zack Snyder (along with co-writer Steve Shibuya) delves into writing for the first time with Sucker Punch. Snyder's trademark visuals are on full display, but anyone expecting this movie to be anything more than visual gratification will surely be disappointed. This movie is like a Cadbury cream egg that's been pricked with a needle and slowly drained of the nougat inside: we're upset all the substance is gone, but at least the chocolate shell is still tasty. On the most basic level, the film succeeds at being an entertaining piece of pop art that has some of the most ridiculous visuals ever committed to celluloid. What other movie has fire-breathing dragons, zeppelins, giant samurai with Gatling guns, robots, and machine gun-toting reanimated zombie Nazis?

Sucker Punch
Co-writer/Director: Zack Snyder
Starring: Emily Browning, Abbie Cornish, Jena Malone, Vanessa Hudgens, Jamie Chung

Is Sucker Punch a good movie? Absolutely not. The script is riddled with as many cliches as there are spent bullet casings, with laughably bad dialogue and stilted performances throughout. Snyder reaches for epic ideas of survival and sacrifice, but because the film is so outrageous, it's hard to take him seriously; it's tough transitioning from a 10 minute slow motion action sequence to pretending to care about the death of a character in whom we've never truly been invested.

But was Snyder trying to make a "good movie" in the widely accepted sense of the phrase? I'm not sure, but I'm leaning towards "no" on that one, too. Sucker Punch is one of the best examples of a film playing to its demographic that I can think of; the intended audience - teenage guys - will go nuts for this thing. Come for the guns and dragons, stay for the over-sexualized fetishization of its female actors.

More on that later. First, let's go over the plot. This should take about forty seconds, considering there really isn't much of one. Baby Doll is institutionalized in the first five minutes of the film for an accidental crime, and in order to cope with her upcoming lobotomy (organized by her skeezy step-father and set to be performed by Jon Hamm, who is hideously underused in about three total minutes of screen time), she creates an alternate reality. The first layer replaces the asylum with an old-timey theater, in which the inmate girls are no longer prisoners to be gawked and violated by corrupt guards and cooks, but now dancers and prostitutes for high rollers and greasy politicians. When it's Baby Doll's turn to dance, she goes into a trance and imagines herself in another layer altogether: different each time, but with her and her fellow inmates as warriors battling robot ninjas and the like. Her mission: gain the items necessary for escape.

The entire movie uses its barely-there story as a stepping stone to jump from one action scene to the next, feeling more like an annoying interruption to a two-hour music video than a vital part of the film. Sucker Punch is half music video, half video game, complete with levels, items, and team search-and-destroy missions. But where Scott Pilgrim vs. The World used a bright color palette and the retro games of our childhoods to create a loving homage to video game culture, this movie is influenced more by the gritty dirt-stained look of more modern games like Call of Duty. Snyder eschews the typical three act structure for a level-based narrative, in which each action sequence (five in total) provides the distraction necessary for the girls to acquire a specific item in the theater layer of reality.

If you're like me, all this talk of layers and levels may remind of you of Chris Nolan's Inception. Warner Bros. has two of the biggest filmmakers on the planet in Snyder and Nolan, and though their styles are completely different, they're currently working together to bring Superman back to the big screen (Snyder's directing, Nolan's producing). Sucker Punch is kind of like Snyder's Inception, an original idea developed by the filmmaker after making serious bank for the studio working from other people's concepts. And though this movie is nowhere near as effective as Nolan's, I respect Snyder for stepping out from the shadow of other properties and trying to make it on his own. I also don't want to imply that even the levels of reality in Sucker Punch are as well executed as Inception; instead, I bring this up to say that I had such low expectations for Sucker Punch I was pleasantly surprised when they put a bit of thought into the film's structure instead of simply bookending it with the asylum sequences and calling it a day.

One of the biggest problems I had with the film comes in its depiction of its female characters. Listen, I love hot women as much as the next guy, but when infantilizing and fetishizing these girls reaches the point where they're one curl away from Natalie Portman during that scene in V For Vendetta, you should probably take a step back and think about what you're doing as a filmmaker. That's especially true if the themes of your movie are supposed to be about empowerment. If most of this movie takes place in Baby Doll's head, why are the characters dressed this way? To quote Morpheus, is that her "mental projection of her digital self"? (I guess technically it's not a "digital" self here, but you get the idea.) Snyder's trying to tell me that Baby Doll sees herself in a slutty schoolgirl outfit in her own mind's eye, complete with charms attached to the end of her handgun? I find it a little hard to believe that she sees herself in an outfit crafted primarily to please men*, but even if Snyder thinks that's a justifiable character decision, the message is still jumbled because on a purely visual level it enforces the very thing the film criticizes.

This is a Zack Snyder movie, after all, so let's talk about some of the positives. Objectifying or not, the costume designs were a highlight. Jena Malone's hair is the best direct translation of anything anime into live action I've ever seen. The overall production design was great, too, whether it be depicting the dingy atmosphere of the asylum or a spired castle with orcs from Lord of the Rings crawling all over it. By the time we see a giant Saturn-esque planet in the background of one of Baby Doll's imagined worlds, you're either along for the ride or you're not - fortunately for me, Sucker Punch hooked me early in this regard so I could enjoy these aspects instead of resent them like many of my colleagues did.

Say what you will about the man, but Snyder can direct the hell out of an action sequence. I've said this before, but he knows what looks cool and uses slow motion as his tool to bring his vision to life and accent little moments to drive his point home. Same can be said here: the fight scenes have the feel of a guru behind the camera (though they all seem a bit too similar to each other for my tastes). There's an extended sequence near the end when the girls fight robots on a train near the end which reminded me of River Tam's epic takedown of the Reavers in Serenity (sorry Zack - Joss did it better).

You've probably noticed I've gone this far without mentioning the acting. That's on purpose - Emily Browning seems to be a mute for half of the film, letting her sword and 9mm do most of the talking. (Her role was originally given to Amanda Seyfried, who had to drop out due to scheduling conflicts with her TV show "Big Love.") Jena Malone and Abbie Cornish are occasionally called upon to actually emote, but  it's really tough to care when the film itself doesn't seem to put any importance into what anyone is saying. Hudgens and Chung are essentially worthless, filling out the posse and that's about it. Like this movie, they all look fantastic, but there's nothing really going on beneath the surface.

If you love seeing people fall from the sky and land with their fist in the ground, only to slowly and dramatically raise their heads with intense looks on their faces, you should love this movie: it happens more times here than in any one piece of media I can remember. Sucker Punch is fine entertainment for the pre-summer season, but I hope I'm not expecting too much when I hope for those tentpoles to be a bit smarter than this film: a shiny package, but nothing's inside. Until next time...

*It has just come to my attention that sexy schoolgirl outfits actually have the potential to provide women with confidence instead of just objectifying them. "Sex is power," someone once told me, and having that power over men in that way seems to be at least partially what Snyder was going for here.

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