Director : Zack Snyder
Screenplay : Zack Snyder & Steve Shibuya (story by Zack Snyder)
MPAA Rating : PG-13
Year of Release : 2011
Stars : Emily Browning (Baby Doll), Abbie Cornish (Sweet Pea), Jena Malone (Rocket), Vanessa Hudgens (Blondie), Jamie Chung (Amber), Carla Gugino (Dr. Vera Gorski), Oscar Isaac (Blue Jones), Jon Hamm (High Roller / Doctor), Scott Glenn (Wise Man), Richard Cetrone (CJ), Gerard Plunkett (Stepfather), Malcolm Scott (The Cook), Ron Selmour (Danforth)
Zack Snyder’s Sucker Punch unfolds like a video game-addled adolescent boy’s wet dream wrapped up in pseudo-feminist fits of girl power. Snyder, who is best known for the ultraviolent graphic novel adaptations of 300 (2006) and Watchmen (2009), is working from his own story idea for the first time, and his only coherent theme seems to be that girls can have big guns and kill the dragon, too, but only as long as they are wearing micro-miniskirts, showing cleavage, and being directed to do so by a wizened father figure who ensures that all forms of female violence are ultimately in the service of a larger male imperative. The hypocrisy of Sucker Punch is that it portends to supplant traditional objectified-female eroticism with violence, but all it does is turn said violence into another form of fetishized display for its largely male audience (I can’t imagine this film holding much interest for female viewers of any age or disposition), writ especially large if you want to pay the extra money to experience all the carefully planned, slow-motion upskirt shots in IMAX.
The story, cooked up by Snyder and put to paper with first-time screenwriter Steve Shibuya, is a hectic mishmash of fantasy within fantasy within fantasy, substituting increasingly bizarre displays of meaningless action for anything resembling plot, character, or theme. The film opens in high fashion, promising much more than it ultimately delivers, with a lengthy, dialogue-free sequence that is set, like all of the film’s main sequences, to a revamped version of an older pop tune (in this case, a stripped down rendition of Ghe Eurthymics’ “Sweet Dreams”). In this intense, dreamlike sequence, we see our protagonist, pouty-lipped, 20-year-old Baby Doll (Emily Browning), and her younger sister losing their mother and then falling victim to their vicious stepfather (Gerard Plunkett) who is furious that he has been left out of the will. The younger sister is killed and Baby Doll is blamed for the murder and committed to an insane asylum, where she is scheduled for a lobotomy in five days (this all appears to be taking place some time in the 1950s).
At this point, the film slips into Baby Doll’s internal dream world, where she imagines that she is actually being held captive in a lavish brothel along with a bevy of other young beauties who are at the mercy of Blue (Oscar Isaac), the brothel’s zoot-suited pimp/owner, and Vera Gorski (Carla Gugino), a dance instructor who tries to protect the girls even as she contributes to their enslavement (it is telling that Snyder’s attempt to psychologize Baby Doll’s coping mechanism involves a heightening of female sexuality and display, which shows that it is more about his own arrested adolescent fantasies than anything that might be taking place between Baby Doll’s platinum blonde pigtails). Baby Doll plans to escape before her virginity is handed over to a nefarious someone named “The High Roller,” which requires help from four other girls with names as provocatively silly as hers: natural leader Sweet Pea (Abbie Cornish), her sister Rocket (Jena Malone), Blondie (Vanessa Hudgens), and Amber (Jamie Chung). The plan to escape involves stealing a map of the brothel, a lighter in order to create a fire for distraction, a knife from the kitchen, and the master key that hangs around Blue’s neck. To steal these items, Baby Doll creates a diversion by--I’m not kidding here--performing an erotic dance that is so infatuating that it literally hypnotizes everyone around her (which are, with the exception of Vera Gorski, all men).
We never see these dances, though, because Snyder replaces them with fantasies within the fantasy in which Baby Doll and the other girls are kick-ass warriors in various video-game-ready scenarios (you can imagine the screenplay and the game treatment being written from the same outline). They find themselves battling World War I-era German zombies who have been reanimated with steam and clockwork mechanics, a giant dragon surrounded by digital extras stolen from Lord of the Rings outtakes, and hoards of Terminator-like robots on a high-speed train cutting across a distant planet. The mishmash of genre components (war, fantasy, science fiction) is flung about with no rhyme or reason, and the only controlling variable is the drooling objectification of the female characters, particularly Baby Doll, who parlays all of her derring-do while wearing a jailbait miniskirt, thigh-highs, and high heels. One could argue that male action stars have done the same thing, at least since Errol Flynn fought bare-chested across the screen. Yet, the manner in which the girls are dolled up like strippers and the fact that they are managed and ordered about by a nonsensical character played by Scott Glenn negates any sense of authority they might command; they are, through and through, objects to be played with, with Snyder relishing his role as puppet master.
The fantasy action sequences, which replace the film’s otherwise destaturated colors with brighter tones that only serve to make the CGI environments feel that much more artificial, are devoid of both weight and consequence. The girls, despite their fishnets and high heels, are suddenly equipped with superhuman powers (it is fantasy, after all) that allow them to fly through the air, crush solid rock, and combine the firepower of Rambo with the speed and dexterity of Bruce Lee. Thus, when we are pulled back into the brothel and asked to feel the force of actual violence against them, it is both empty and hypocritical. Despite all of its postmodern visual excess and genre blending, Sucker Punch is frighteningly devoid of self-consciousness, especially at the end when sacrifices are made and we are meant to feel like something truly transcendent has just occurred. Nothing of the sort has happened, and you can’t help but feel that the otherwise nonsensical title is meant to suggest what Snyder has just done to the viewer.
Copyright ©2011 James Kendrick
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