I would say that the characters in Zack Snyder’s latest film, Sucker Punch, could never exist in any plane of reality because of how one dimensional they are. Thankfully, the opening and closing 10 minutes of the film are the only parts that even take place in the real world, meaning I don’t have to feel self-conscious about using such a critical cliche. Does that mean that Sucker Punch is actually a good movie because of this? Hell no, but the more I think about it the more interesting a failure I think it is. There is a good film trying to get out of Sucker Punch, but Zack Snyder is just the wrong person to bring something like this to the screen.
I have a feeling that I am going to be slightly more charitable than most of my critical brethren when it comes to talking about Sucker Punch. In truth, the film does have a few things going for it. The film attempts a challenging plot structure despite not being able to pull it off or explain anything. The cast members fit their roles of… um… uh…
The soundtrack is filled with great songs that are unfortunately not sung by the original artists but instead by actors from the film who don’t even sing them on camera. (But if they used these awesome songs, the thought was there, right?) The film is filled with allusions to classic musicals from the 1930s Busby Berkely films to Moulin Rouge despite only being a musical in so far as it attempts to ape the structure of one amid a bunch of heavy handed symbolism within what amounts to little more than Inception for dummies. It has the interesting but obvious notion of correlating action sequences to eroticism, but it explores the action way more than the vastly more interesting subtext.
I will be kind to Sucker Punch in just a moment. I swear it. I do have one nice thing to say about the film, but I will leave it until the end because to anyone reading this review what I say will be painfully obvious. I am sure Zack Snyder can really appreciate that I leave the most obvious points until the end of the review.
The film opens with a young woman whom the audience will only come to know as Baby Doll (Emily Browning) avoiding getting raped by her stepfather and nearly killing him while very slowly moving in typical Zack Snyder fashion to the strains of Sweet Dreams (Are Made of of This) (not by the Eurythmics or even Marilyn Manson, but instead sung by a laughably auto-tuned Browning). Because of defending herself and because she has a rich stepfather, she is remanded to a mental institution in rural Vermont where she is going to be…
I stop right there because if I say what happens in the first ten minutes of the film, it will spoil the entire film. Let’s just say that the viewer have a brain and hasn’t been lobotomized, they will remember this scene for the rest of the film and realize that everything they see from here on in doesn’t matter in the slightest.
Immediately we are transported into Baby Doll’s dream world, where the hospital and everyone around her become players in some sort of dinner theatre version of Showgirls. The head nurse (Oscar Issac, attempting a lame Kyle MacLachlan impression) is the head of a Vegas-style burlesque house and all of the patients are now dancers. Baby Doll is the new girl on the strip and is being groomed for the arrival of a “high roller” (Jon Hamm, who really looks bewildered that he is in this movie) and is being taught how to dance by the occupational therapy nurse, turned dance instructor (Carla Gugino, who needs to stop doing these kind of movies as soon as humanly possible). The other girls are named Sweet Pea, Rocket, Blondie, and Amber and are played by capable actresses who I will not name here simply because this film does not even remotely care about building any of them up or even making the audience care about what happens to them in the slightest.
As it turns out, every time Baby Girl dances she transports herself into another dream world where she can be anything she wants to be. Instead of dreaming to be president, living a happy life, or dreaming of any sort of normal bloodthirsty revenge, she dreams she is a warrior leading all of her dancer/patient friends on dangerous missions given to them by Scott Glenn (credited only as Wise Man and spouting nonsensical, inspirational platitudes of the worst sort). In the real, dream world, however, as Baby Doll dances, her fellow inmate dancers are stealing a series of 5 items that will aid in their escape. The fifth item is a mystery, but if you have seen any movie where the hero has to collect a series of items, you have a 1 in 3 chance of guessing correctly what that final item is. Hint: It is not love or friendship. Or heart. I forgot about that one. I guess it was a one in four chance.
Sucker Punch is the ultimate “too cool for school” movie. It attempts to dazzle you with a visual acumen that is actually quite stunning. The action sequences in this film are like nothing I have ever seen before and to some degree add the slightest dash of awe for the technique used to make them. Of course, when Howard the Duck was released, I had also never seen a half-midget, half-animatronic duck doing a bad Richard Dreyfuss impersonation before. To make matters worse, the action sequences themselves play out like a game of MadLibs done by someone on salvia. It was as if Snyder thought he would never make another movie again and put all his ideas into four separate hats. One hat holding a goal, another with a type of weapon, another with a form of villain, and the last with a type of film he would never get to make. How else can one explain a bomb on a train sequence that takes place in space with robot villains and an airstrike chopper?
Sucker Punch further digs itself a huge hole by thinking it is far more clever than it really is. Zack Snyder’s script shows utter contempt for its audience by thinking that no one will be able to figure out that he is really making a musical where the song and dance numbers are replaced by action sequences. Also, the dreams within dreams concept has been done better and before and the whole structure is negated if a viewer has more than a ten minute attention span and can remember how the movie started in the first place. The terribly unsubtle dialog also does the mystery at the heart of the film no favours. Even worse, the film has a downer ending that feels not so much undeserved and obvious, but also really lazy. Almost like Snyder though he wasn’t being emotionally manipulative enough.
Speaking of lobotomized viewers, the film itself feels really lobotomized. Almost an entire act feels missing and it happens to be the act where the audience is supposed to actually care about what happens to anyone other than Baby Doll. Also, the actual dance that leads Baby Doll into the dream is never shown, presumably because this film has the most ludicrous PG-13 rating in the history of the rating. I can’t think of a film with this rating that actually uses rape as a plot device to get anything other than an R-rating. The fact that this film also has a body count in the trillions and obviously dubbed over swears, it’s sanitized nature makes it feel even sleazier. If this film were any more phallic, there would be hot dog zeppelins flying into doughnut hangars.
It feels like Snyder used his premise as an excuse to get away with whatever he wanted to do. It is true that in dreams a person can do whatever they want, but to put that on film and to not create any strong or meaningful characters around the dream is a cop out at best and lazy at worst. Sucker Punch never amounts to more than a series of music videos punctuated by… well, nothing. Sucker Punch is a series of music videos with some imagination but zero sense of wonder or enchantment. I could see it becoming a staple at slumber parties and sleepovers for both boys and girls alike. Not because Sucker Punch is any good, but because it makes for some really pretty and flashy background noise.
Andrew Parker is a Toronto-based writer, critic, and filmmaker.