I wanted to see Sucker Punch in theater since I first saw the trailer for it at Comic Con. So, I went and saw it.
It’s kind of neat . . . but it needs A LOT of help.
Baby Doll (Emily Browning) is put in an insane asylum by her evil stepfather. She plans to escape with four other patients. Lots of slow-motion, fantasy sequences ensue.
1. I am a Zack Snyder fan, and I’m not going to apologize for that. I think the man can make a movie. I have problems with some of his films—this one, in particular—but I still like going to see them. They’re always interesting and exciting and enjoyable to watch, especially on the big screen, and I don’t think that Sucker Punch was any exception. It was a lot of fun to watch. It just also happened to be exceptionally uneven and badly mishandled.
2. But before we even get to the movie, let’s get the feminism question out of the way first, shall we? Some people are offended by the girls in short skirts and tight leather fighting soldiers and dragons and whatnot. Like, if Sucker Punch is all about kickass girls, shouldn’t they be in like, I don’t know, man clothing?
I can tell you right now that I think this is a BS criticism. I don’t see what’s so demeaning about sexy clothing, I just don’t. Yes, women shouldn’t be treated as sexual objects, blah, blah, blah, but I’m a woman, and do I like to daydream about getting to kick ass and look hot while doing it? Hell yeah. I believe in women’s rights. I’m for all kinds of feminist stuff, but why does that mean I have to dress and think like a boy? Why can’t a girl dress up in a sexy sailor outfit? Sure, boys will fantasize about her . . . but why does that mean she can only be a wet dream? Why can’t that just be one of the things she is?
There are a lot of genuine problems with this movie. Costuming isn’t one of them.
3. Now, if there are two things you can count on from Zack Snyder, it’s an awesome soundtrack and a lot of slow-motion. The slow-mo works for me in Sucker Punch. The soundtrack doesn’t.
See, the first ten minutes is essentially a prologue delivered in the form of a music video, and, actually, I kind of enjoyed it. You don’t really need words to get the basic story, and, hell, it looks cool. Sometimes, that’s all I need. But the music never really lets up—it’s in your face, all the time, more intrusive and distracting than it is helpful. Sure, I enjoyed all the fighting that happened as the cover of “White Rabbit” blasted through, but the whole “Where Is My Mind” sequence? Completely unnecessary. (As a side note, there are a lot of cover songs in this soundtrack. The whole thing might be covers. I’m not sure. Surprisingly, I liked each song a lot; I just didn’t like how they were used in the context of the film.)
Music is an essential part of any movie, but if you’re afraid to go seven minutes without another song to dictate the emotional course of the journey—well, your film has problems that your soundtrack cannot hope to compensate for.
4. Sucker Punch is one of those movies where it’s a story within a story within a story . . . and you have to be one skilled motherfucker to pull off a narrative like that. For my money, Inception does it pretty well, but not every film can do it, and Sucker Punch? Sucker Punch fails.
I can’t quite make up my mind exactly where it fails, and without going into spoilers, it’s hard to tell you why. But it’s the biggest problem in the film, the structure, and I’ve come up with two solutions. I just haven’t decided which is better.
A. Eliminate the middle story entirely. I’m not sure it makes a lot of logical sense anyway, and with some rewriting, I’m not sure it’s entirely necessary. Do you really need someone to have an escapist fantasy while in the middle of another escapist fantasy? A story within a story should work just fine, thanks.
B. Bridge World A and World B better. World A is the Real World, World B is the Fantasy, and World C is the Fantasy Within The Fantasy. World B and World C work together fine. The transitions between them get EXTREMELY repetitive, but it’s still easy enough to follow. The initial transition from World A to World B, on the other hand, pretty much fails, and more on that in the Spoiler Section.
5. Also in the Spoiler Section: ranting on unnecessary voiceovers and the irritating compulsion to bookend your film. Arg. ARG, dammit.
6. On the upside, Sucker Punch is gorgeous, and I’d really like Zack Snyder to stop working on the newest version of Superman (which I have no interest in, anyway) and pick up a video game to adapt into a film instead. Video game adaptations are notorious for sucking, but if anyone can capture the nonsensical yet gorgeous feel of a video game, it’s gotta be Snyder. I was thinking the Dead or Alive games (yes, I know it’s already been done) but I’m sure there are others. Hmmm. Now I want to know what a Zack Snyder Mortal Kombat would look like.
7. Somewhat related—I think I want Jena Malone to play Link in whoever eventually gets the rights to make the dark, steampunk version of The Legend of Zelda.
8. As far as acting goes, everyone’s pretty much fine. Scott Glenn’s fun and does what he’s supposed to. Same for the bad guy, Carla Gugino, and all of the girls. I think Jena Malone stood out for me just a little, maybe because she has the feistiest character, or maybe just because it’s neat to see her kick-ass. There really isn’t anyone that’s bad, although Emily Browning pretty much has two expressions the entire movie. This one:
And this one:
But that’s okay. Sure, better characters would have made this a better movie, but the fact that the characters aren’t fleshed-out very well really isn’t one of my bigger problems in the film. I think some stories work without exceptionally deep characters, and this is one of them. Or would have been, if it didn’t have so many other flaws.
9. Again, can’t say much without spoilers, but Sucker Punch does do a couple of things that I wasn’t expecting, and I liked how those things were handled. I know. Can I possibly be more vague about that? Probably. You can always be more vague. I could have said something about a shadow, for instance. Or a storm. Always go for a shadow or a storm if you want to be vague about something that’s potentially ominous.
10. Still, despite fun fight scenes, gorgeous scenery, and some developments that I vaguely alluded to in Note 9, the film was, overall, kind of weak. Enjoyable but weak. If you’re going to try something as ambitious as a nesting doll plot, then you really have to have a solid structure. This movie’s structure was severely lacking, and the film suffered greatly for it.
Now. On to the Spoilers . . .
Okay, so during the music video prologue of this movie, there is a voiceover narration about how there are angels who will come into your life at unexpected moments and help you out . . . though, unfortunately, not every single time you need them. Since this narration is being given as Baby Doll accidentally kills her baby sister while trying to save the girl from the Evil Stepfather, clearly this isn’t going to be one of those angel-ex-machina moments. More on that later.
So, Evil Stepdaddy gets Baby Doll committed, and pays Blue (an orderly, also known as Main Antagonist) to schedule her for a lobotomy. So there Baby Doll is, stuck in an insane asylum, imagining that she’s stuck in a brothel where her fellow inmates are actually girls who dance (among other things) for the “gentlemen” who come to watch. All the girls are good dancers, but Baby Doll’s sexy dance is apparently so incredible that she can pretty much hypnotize any male with the power of her utter sexiness. I say apparently because we never see Baby Doll’s Magic Dance of Sexiness. Every time she starts rolling her shoulders back in a sexy-like manner, we go to her Inner Inner Fantasy World, where she imagines fighting robots and zombies and dragons and all kinds of kickass shit.
The first time Baby Doll goes to Inner Inner Fantasy World (or World C) she encounters Zen Master Scott Glenn, who tells her that she needs to find a map, a key, a knife, fire, and some mysterious thing that only she can find in order to escape from the brothel. She enlists Sweet Pea, Rocket, Blondie, and Amber to help her do this. Also of importance: Sweet Pea and Rocket are sisters, and Sweet Pea wants to keep her little sister safe, which means she’s kind of a resistant bitch to Baby Doll’s plan during most of the movie.
Baby Doll’s plan works for awhile (basically, she dances men into slack-jawed stupidity while her friends steal shit) but when something goes wrong, Rocket gets stabbed and dies saving Sweet Pea. (Somewhat predictable, since Rocket’s the reason Sweet Pea is stuck there, but still. Boo. I liked Jena Malone. Her death scene in World C was kind of cool, though.)
In the meantime, Blondie has blabbed her big mouth about the escape plan, and Blue (who’s no longer just an orderly but the boss of this establishment) decides to send a message to the other girls by killing both her and Amber. Because he’s a bit of a bastard, really. And, also, because these two are clearly the most expendable characters. Still, I didn’t think that either of them would actually go out like that. I figured it would happen closer to the end and more heroically, if at all.
The abruptness and brutality of Amber and Blondie’s murders is very well done. It’s a nice balance to all that slow-moving fantasy going on in World C. Like this is the real world, bitches, and people just get shot in the head around here. No dragons allowed. (Although, of course, this isn’t the real world. But, you know, it’s closer.)
Anyway, so Baby Doll manages to stab Blue (though not kill him), and she and Sweet Pea run away. They can’t escape outside the gates, though, and Baby Doll realizes that the last thing she has to “find” is her sacrifice. She tells Sweet Pea that this isn’t Baby Doll’s story; this is Sweet Pea’s story, and she distracts the men outside so that Sweet Pea can escape.
Then, back in World A (the real, real world) Jon Hamm finishes giving Baby Doll her lobotomy. It turns out that at least some of what you’ve been watching has happened—Baby Doll really did stab Blue the orderly, and she really did help a fellow patient escape. But it’s hard to know exactly how much of it is true, and as far as Rocket, Blondie, and Amber go . . . who knows? There’s never any mention of them again, so there’s really no way to know if they were ever in on the real escape plan, if they’re dead, if Rocket and Sweet Pea were really sisters, etc, etc.
Blue has apparently become crazy and obsessed with Baby Doll in World A, so he leads the lobotomized girl to a secret room so that he can scream at her and presumably rape her . . . but Dr. Carla Gugino stops him, thankfully, and he gets dragged away. And then we leave poor, lobotomized Baby Doll in the asylum, and go back to Sweet Pea trying to board a bus. The helpful narration starts up again, reminding us all of those random, merciful angels, and when a few cops try to stop Sweet Pea, the bus driver—none other than Scott Glenn!—lies and saves her life, even though she’s a complete stranger. And . . . credits roll! That’s the end, folks!
Jesus. That’s a lot to shit to go through.
Okay, well, first off: voiceovers are almost never a good idea, and here? Here, it’s a terrible idea. The narration’s pretty badly written and corny as hell, as most voiceovers about angels inevitably are. Also, filmmakers just love to bookend their work with similar-to-identical monologues, but while that strategy works in novels, it often fails in film. Not always, mind you, but often: the narration is obvious and annoying and sometimes doesn’t even make any sense. (A good example of this: Legion. Man, that movie sucked.)
Here, it’s actually worse because the narration simultaneously sets up and then ruins the one good idea that Sucker Punch had going for it. Namely, that you’re supposed to think the story is about Baby Doll’s escape, but, really, it’s not her story. It’s Sweet Pea’s story, and Baby Doll is her random, merciful angel who frees Sweet Pea to go home. Admittedly, Sucker Punch fumbles this idea badly because save for the narration and one line Baby Doll throws out at the end, it’s almost not in the movie. Big themes like that shouldn’t just come out of nowhere, especially not ten minutes before credits roll. Nevertheless, it’s kind of neat, if badly executed, idea . . .
. . . except that the last bit of narration is delivered while Bus Driver Scott Glenn saves Sweet Pea, which is not only corny and off-putting, it completely takes away from the whole idea of Baby Doll as Angel. Because, apparently, Scott Glenn is the angel. And . . . bah. Bah, I say. I despised Glenn being thrown in there at the last minute. Talk about fucking corny, man. A random benevolent bus driver? Gag me with a fucking unicorn.
Some other problems I had with Sucker Punch:
Like I said earlier in this review, World A and World B aren’t connected very well. I don’t mind not knowing everything that really happened, but not knowing the fate of three of your main characters is kind of important. The transition from World A to World B could have been a hell of a lot smoother. And when you finally come back to World A, Blue appears to have transformed from a money-grubbing shit to a complete psychopath. The actor does fine with the work—I actually liked Oscar Issac quite a bit in this movie—but the change seems bizarre when you have no knowledge of the week that passed by in the real world. Has Baby Doll really driven him that insane? What happened between them other than the stabbing?
If Snyder had made his transition from World A to World B clearer . . . and maybe had a few scenes showing how the orderlies were sexually taking advantage of the institutionalized girls . . . because I think they were? . . . then maybe World B would have made a little more sense. Or just cut out World B entirely because it does seem like Zack Snyder unnecessarily complicated his storyline in an effort to make it more edgy and mindblowing, when he really just made it convoluted and illogical. That never turns out well.
Although, in defense of the movie . . .
A lot of people have had issues with this being a “girl power” movie, when the display of girl power only results in said girl living in a lobotomized-fantasy land, like, that’s your paradise? That’s the message? And I guess this didn’t bother me because, in a way, I didn’t look at this as a “girl power” movie. That may sound ridiculous considering that it features a bunch of hot girls fighting a shitload of monsters, but I took it as more of a survivalist movie than “girls can do anything because girls are cool” movie. Madame Gorski (Carla Gugino) tells Blue that she teaches the girls to dance because she’s teaching them how to survive him. I don’t look at the fantasy sequences and think they’re saying, “I am woman and I roar!” I think the fantasy sequences are just a way for Baby Doll to cope, to feel empowered even when she’s not. Sucker Punch isn’t really a “girls can do anything boys can do better” kind of movie. It’s about a bunch of girls trying to survive . . . and most of them don’t. That’s not exactly an upper, but I’m okay with that. Sweet Pea gets out, and that is Baby Doll’s victory. It’s not that she gets a fucking lobotomy. It’s that her sacrifice meant the other girl went free.
So, I don’t have a problem with the message of the movie, and I don’t have a problem with the costuming. I do, however, have serious problems with the structure of the movie, the execution of ideas, and the bookend narration . . . not to mention the overpowering soundtrack and Angel Scott Glenn.
I could watch Sucker Punch again . . . I really did enjoy lot of the fight sequences, and I’ve seen way worse movies at the theater before . . . but the more I look at this movie, the more problems I find. I don’t know that it’s as bad as some people have made it out to be (I believe io9 called it the death of filmmaking, and that seems a touch extreme) but not unlike Legion, this movie could have been ridiculously amazing, and ended up . . . mostly ridiculous.
Learn how to shoot a gun from four feet away. If you can aim your gun and kill your evil stepfather without the bullet ricocheting and killing your little sister, maybe you wouldn’t be thrown into an insane asylum and scheduled for a lobotomy, kay? Maybe the asylum but definitely not the lobotomy. It’s amazing how many films depend on a character’s ability to aim a gun.
Also: younger sisters never make it out alive.
Well . . . shit. Thanks for playing, I guess.