By Gavin Elias
It’s a shame really, when we finally realize how badly ‘Sucker Punch’ misses the mark. At first glance it certainly seems intriguing enough. Directed by Zach Snyder, the visually innovative director of ‘300’ and ‘Watchmen’, the film strikes up with a promising premise: a girl placed in an asylum by her abusive stepfather slips into a sort of ‘Alice in Wonderland with machineguns’ as she tries to escape the horror of her surroundings and achieve freedom. It’s the kind of premise that almost screams potential. Yet by the time the credits roll, the viewer is firmly out of fantasy land and fully aware of the reality that ‘Sucker Punch’ is, for all intents and purposes, a dud – an unfortunate misfire of a film whose biggest weaknesses seem to lie not in concept, but in execution.
The warning signs of this looming train wreck are visible relatively early one. Ostensibly striving for sophistication, Snyder has nailed together a ramshackle silver screen roadmap in which multiple levels of fantasy jostle for our attention. Upon arrival at the overly bleak mental facility, the curiously named Babydoll (Emily Browning) is promptly scheduled for a lobotomy due to an underhanded deal between her stepfather and a corrupt orderly (Oscar Isaac). Before we’re even aware, she has entered a bizarre parallel world of her own making; here, the asylum becomes a high class brothel, her fellow inmates (all female) morph into scantily-clad lap dancers, and her impending lobotomy is transformed into a scheduled visit from the ‘High Roller’ (John Hamm), a man to whom Babydoll’s virginity is to be sold. This is merely preamble however, as Babydoll soon descends from this level of (un)reality into mental constructs even more hallucinatory – these are lurid, physics-bending fantasy worlds (read: video game levels) in which Babydoll and the other patients/burlesque performers battle hordes of clockwork German zombies, Lord of the Rings-style orcs, and shimmering robots, all while decked out with assault rifles and fishnet stockings. Utterly over the top, these sequences are nothing less than digital phantasmagoria, injected into the film’s dingy frames like convulsive shock therapy – therapy that is, that serves up a bloated smorgasbord of scenes from war, steampunk, fantasy and sci-fi films, topped off with a side-serving of almost overpowering fetishism.
Perhaps the biggest problem is that, amidst its raucous visuals and adrenaline (or maybe estrogen) overload, ‘Sucker Punch’ seems to have forgotten to include heart; despite the visual maelstrom hurled our way, there’s really nothing to connect with, no reason to care about Babydoll’s struggle. And this is largely because ‘Sucker Punch’, with its bold presentation of fantasies within fantasies, never bothers to lay down any ground rules, making it nigh impossible to understand the implications and importance of what happens in the various levels of the protagonist’s delusions. Little is ever explained in regards to how or why they even occur in the first place; even less is revealed about their contents’ relevance to Babydoll’s mental state. Indeed, the frenetic battles don’t seem to mean anything – it’s as if the director simply couldn’t think of any other way to represent the girls’ attempt to win freedom. As a result, none of ‘Sucker Punch’s impressive visuals or stylistic flourishes matter to the viewer, as the lack of internal logic and justifying framework render them irrelevant.
As far as the acting is concerned, ‘Sucker Punch’ is almost uniformly abysmal. Emily Browning admittedly captures the fragile vulnerability of Babydoll, but proves chronically unable to do little else; indeed, she spends about 90% of the film with her lips sewn into a permanent pout – one which, assumedly, is meant to both demonstrate her sorrow in the asylum/brothel scenes while signaling her badassery in the fantasy sequences. Her female co-stars are equally monochromatic, and (besides the universal attribute of gratuitous beauty) seem to each possess exactly one personality trait – there’s the caring one, the protective one, the ditzy one and the blasé one – and all of them spout cliché-ridden one-liners that take running leaps off the verbal diving board and into the foot-deep pool of flat-out painful dialogue. Certainly, none have any semblance of depth, and whether due to poor acting or just bad characterization, end up looking just as manufactured and empty as the CGI lightshows that pervade the movie. And in what seems like an example of the film’s heavy-handed and overwhelmingly unsuccessful attempt at social commentary, the various male characters of the film are all woefully two dimensional jerks, seemingly competing with one another for who can be the most misogynistic, lecherous and blatantly predatory towards the female protagonists. Oscar Isaac, at least, does radiate a distinctly irritating vibe (probably due to his flamboyant pimp mustache), but the rest of the men are unremarkable in their villainy.
Even worse is the film’s tone – decidedly bleak and depressing (except the action scenes, which are fairly emotionless on the whole), but lacking any underlying meaning. Themes of female empowerment are touched on, but are ultimately undermined by the very decisions the film itself makes; from its depiction of oppressed girls rebelling, one might assume the only way for women to proactively improve their existence is to don miniskirts, grab some guns, and retreat into fantasyland. Accordingly, the lurking dangers of rape, mental disintegration and murder that the women face throughout the film lose all symbolic value, and thus the last shreds of pathos they might have had. Perhaps in light of the recent trend towards ‘darker’ fantasy films, Snyder had hoped that imbuing his work with all the cheer of a charnel house would elevate its worth. In fact, it simply renders the movie dull without making it thought provoking – indeed, it’s probably more likely for ‘Sucker Punch’ to induce an epileptic fit than to prompt serious reflection.
It is important though, to give ‘Sucker Punch’ its due. There are certainly elements of the film that work to great effect; the stylistic action-fantasy sequences, for example, particularly shine, both as dazzling examples of visual creativity run amok, and as clever amalgamations of the various tropes that linger about in genre films and video games. The WW1-esque battle scene was perhaps the best of these, featuring not only conventional trench raids, duelling biplanes and massive zeppelins, but also rocket-boosted mecha and clockwork-powered German zombies, the likes of which gave off a delightful steampunk vibe. And Snyder adopts a clever aesthetic in attempting to convey the respective moods of the different layers of reality; a desaturated palate of greys, blacks and blues denotes the dispassionate atmosphere of the asylum, while lush, warm reds and purples suggest the sexualized nature of the brothel, and vibrant, psychedelic colours capture the intensity of the fantasy (within fantasy) scenes. Sadly though, the film’s successes here merely make a deeply flawed work look pretty; like perfume sprinkled on garbage, they only partially mask the stench, and do less to address the root of the problem.
Ultimately, ‘Sucker Punch’ represents a lost opportunity. Instead of building on a strong premise with a well-crafted, coherent story, Snyder chooses to focus solely on visual splendour and fetishistic action scenes to the extent that the film feels less like a unified, plot-driven work than a series of well-choreographed music videos starring uninteresting characters and interspersed with inexplicably poor dialogue. And with no emotional connection, we simply aren’t able to care about the movie’s story or bumbled message. Ironically enough, despite the implications of its name, ‘Sucker Punch’ simply doesn’t have what it takes to assure a knockout, or anything remotely close.