When the first teaser trailers for Sucker Punch were released last summer, I couldn't help myself: I watched and my mouth dropped open. It was just so stupid big. We know Zack Snyder doesn't do things by halves after seeing 300 and Watchmen, but this one was just going to be way over the top. And I could accept that—rather I was happy to accept that—given the potential of the ideas that were being displayed. I've mentioned elsewhere in this blog that I really like storytelling on the edge of genres, such that it spills over. One of the hot things in speculative fiction right now is steampunk, the mash-up of Victorian literature with contemporary technology; I've been a fan of the genre since Sterling and Gibson released The Difference Engine in the early 90s. And in the action sequences shown in the trailers and ads for Sucker Punch, I thought I was seeing a film taking those kinds of risks: biplanes in the air with dragons and giant samurai robots. Really…what could go wrong?
It turns out that the rest of the movie does. Accept for a moment the popcorn, over-the-top nature of huge action sequences; there is something freeing about armored suits in the trenches of World War I fighting Austro-Hungarian steam-zombies. It just makes you want to giggle. And if Sucker Punch had kept its tongue firmly planted in its cheek and just gone for the ride, it would have been a blast, a stupid huge action flick that you could just sit back and enjoy without having to think about it. But Sucker Punch isn't that; instead it tries to have a moral that ends up getting all muddled, primarily because Snyder doesn't seem to be resolute in what he is trying to say.
If you've seen the commercials, you pretty much know the set-up: young girl gets sent to asylum by despicable father figure for apparently fighting off his advances. I don't recall ever knowing the character's real name—perhaps we see it quickly on a form or something—but she is referred to throughout the movie as Baby Doll (Emily Browning). It turns out Baby Doll's stepfather is more heinous than the commercials make him appear: she and her younger sister are the heirs to their mother's estate, and step-dad's first plan is to (continue to?—there is a real implication in the movie) abuse his step-daughters. Baby Doll protects her sister by brandishing a gun at her tormentor, but she does not brandish well as the gun goes off and her sister is killed (compare to how well the fantasy Baby Doll uses guns later in the movie). And so off to the asylum she goes, while slimy step-dad pays a healthy chunk of money to a member of the staff named Blue (Oscar Isaac) to see that Baby Doll is declared insane and receives a lobotomy. In one of the explicit images of the lack of female power in the movie, this plan is discussed where Baby Doll can hear it, and so she knows she only has a week to escape.
What follows is a strange cross between Inception and the classic short story "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge." To escape the horrors of the stereotypically disgusting asylum (why are asylums never clean or in full repair in movies?), Baby Doll sinks into a fantasy world where she and her fellow inmates are actually living in a nasty cross between a dance hall and a bordello, and the owner, Blue, has promised Baby Doll's virginity to a character we only know as The High Roller (Jon Hamm) at the end of the week. Almost the entirety of Sucker Punch is told at this narrative level, except that when Baby Doll first performs a dance for the club's choreographer, she is transported to the bizarre world that is so engaging in the commercials: her dance is her battle against the chaotic forces in her secondary visions.
The movie spends most of its time bouncing back and forth between these two levels of hallucination, while Baby Doll and her band of freedom fighters try to gather together the tools they think they will need to escape the bordello (and one is led to assume, the asylum itself, back at the "reality" level of the movie). The result is an ongoing juxtaposition of images of women in roles of power—warriors and heroes—versus slaves and whores struggling to escape their oppressors. And I have to admit I'm troubled here by writing in the terms of the feminist movement; on the one hand, the very ideas of Sucker Punch scream out for evaluation in terms of empowering women, but on the other, its treatment of those ideas is so clumsy and juvenile that I wonder if the movie really intended to deal with them at all. I've actually seen one critic describe Sucker Punch as a vision of the power of women from the point of view of an adolescent boy, but I'm not sure that the perspective isn't just genderlessly immature.
As a further example, most of the freedom fighters also apparently have no real names: Sweet Pea (Abbie Cornish), her sister Rocket (Jena Malone), and Blondie (a decidedly brunette Vanessa Hudgens), are joined by Amber (Jamie Chung). And yet their nicknames have nothing to do with their actual characteristics. The girls don't trust each other and are at first reluctant to follow Baby Doll, but as they appear to succeed, their confidence grows. And for each of the first three trinkets required for their plan, Baby Doll dances seductively, weaving a web of childish eroticism over her viewers as the girls ply their charms to steal what they think they need. Woven around the movie is a fascinating soundtrack, led off by a remake of "Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This),"all of which adds to the otherworldly visionary quality of the story being told.
But it all comes crashing down, as we finally forgo the fantasy levels of the film and "reality" sets in. I don't want to go into spoilers here, but the generally positive message of empowerment is completely lost in how hard it all crashes. From a story-telling perspective, the audience is given very little clue how badly it all ends up being, and so it feels like a turn out of nowhere. Even though there is a bit of a comeuppance, it is a very tiny bit and completely unsatisfying. And then, finally, as if the confusion at the conclusion isn't unsettling enough, the final credits roll, and intermingled with them is a Baz Luhrmann-esque rendition of Roxy Music's "Love is the Drug" performed by the girls' oppressor Blue, their would-be savior Madame Gorski (Carla Gugino), and the freedom fighters, minus Baby Doll….all dressed as they were back at the bordello level of the movie fantasy. Why no Baby Doll? How could they sing about love being the drug, when it was perverted forms of love that the girls were trying to escape from all along? It just becomes a sordid mess with nothing really available to help make sense of it all.
So parts of Sucker Punch are a lot of fun: the action sequences are very nice and action-y, but it is clear they are two steps removed from the reality of the story. The rest is depressing, not just for the story being told, but also because of the apparent potential of a storytelling opportunity lost. If there is a message hidden somewhere in the mess, it is lost. And if it is just supposed to be a joyride, it fails utterly there as well.
As I left the theater pondering the movie, I was reminded of its title. The trouble is, I can't remember there being a sucker punch in the entire movie. And then I began to wonder if perhaps the sucker being punched by this tangle isn't, at the end, the person who took the time to see it.