Talking about this movie requires me to be a little crass, so be forewarned: Watching Sucker Punch is like getting an unwanted erection.
Every guy has had to deal with it: you’re walking along, perfectly content with your high-minded Dr. Jekyll life, and then you see or hear or taste something that makes Mr. Hyde assert himself, and you’re left with nothing but a disappointed, “Oh, man. Really?!” (And I know it happens to every guy or else there wouldn’t be Catholicism).
Sucker Punch isn’t a very clever or thought-provoking movie. I don’t even think it was all that original; I kept having the vague sense that all the imagery already exists somewhere in a pop art gallery or a sci-fi magazine. But despite that, you cannot deny that it has reasonably hot women fighting clockwork zombie Huns with railguns in alternate-history WWI trenches and a battle mech styled like a WWII bomber.
Against my better judgment, I’m hard-wired to like this.
Other things I’m hard-wired to like: “Army of Me” by Björk. Samurai. Giant samurai who shoot light out of the hole when you slice them up with a katana. German blimps over a ruined cathedral. Orcs, goblins, and dragons, and orcs getting cut up by helicopter blades. “Tomorrow Never Knows” by The Beatles. Space trains on the moon of a ringed planet. Studebakers. Jon Hamm.
Sucker Punch is only — self-consciously — a list of those things. It’s got a framing story that should be just an excuse to string all those things together. A young woman’s wrongly committed to a mental institution by her wicked stepfather, and she plans to escape an impending lobotomy by distracting her captors with passionate dance sequences that we never see, but which take her into a series of fantasy worlds. Also the institution’s a brothel, somehow, or maybe it’s not. And the whole thing is either a fairy tale story or a stage play.
That framing story is 90% of the problem: it’s a half-assed effort to make a adolescent male fantasy T&A movie that makes a commentary on T&A movies. I left the movie thinking that I just didn’t understand Zack Snyder at all. Which would be worse? If he genuinely thought he was making something significant, or if he knew exactly how insignificant the movie was, but added the framing story in an attempt to defend himself against making something so shallow?
This interview with Synder on Movieline sheds a little light on the creative process, and it’s pretty grim. It sounds like he was making a completely sincere, genuine attempt at the standard movie-audiences-as-voyeurs theme.
Except it’s all kind of clumsy and ham-fisted. Symbolism is fine; symbolism deliberately simplified for adolescents is pandering. The movie starts out with a curtain opening on a stage and a voiceover about stories and then segues into a dialogue-free backstory music video, all to make it clear that you’re watching a story. A short time later, a montage showing what’s going to happen to our heroine shifts into a rehearsal for a stage play. One of the characters angrily walks off stage, asking what kind of audience would want to see a beautiful woman be lobotomized. It doesn’t come across as cleverly self-referential so much as Synder covering his ass.
There’s no sense of discovery or interpretation. It’s not like art, but more like Cliff’s Notes of art. It smashes together all the elements that usually add depth to movies — self-reference, implicating the audience, using imagery and symbolism — but then leaves them lying there, inert. By the end, it’s all just muddled and meaningless, defying any attempt to make sense of it. There’s a lot of gross violence towards women towards the end of the movie; is it genuinely misogynistic, or is it just intended to be a contrast to the girls-kick-ass fantasy of the last hour and a half? I honestly couldn’t tell.
I hate the whole concept of the “you just have to turn your brain off” defense of bad movies. But I actually wish Sucker Punch had abandoned the pretense of commentary and just embraced its role as spectacle. This isn’t like Transformers or National Treasure; movies like those are doomed to failure, because they’re too literal. They insist on aping real movies, they don’t have enough imagination to turn into pure fantasy, so they fail as both story and spectacle. If Sucker Punch hadn’t tried to make a weak attempt at absolving itself of being T&A, it could’ve landed safely in the zone of Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow-style spectacle.
Instead, it gives up any notion of Sky Captain‘s self-aware fun, and tries to have Kill Bill‘s self-aware significance. But while the fantastic imagery of Sucker Punch works on a gut level — again, it’s a really pretty movie, even when it’s being ugly — it doesn’t feel as innovative or exhilarating as Kill Bill. Both take images they’ve seen elsewhere and throw them together onto the screen, but one feels as if it’s creating something more out of them, the other feels like it’s just regurgitating them. There’s not the same sense of inspiration.
It’s such a retread that I spent the whole movie being creeped out that they’d somehow CG-reanimated David Carradine, only to get to the credits and realize that the part of David Carradine was being played by Scott Glenn.
One other thing about inspiration: when I first saw the posters and trailer for Sucker Punch, I made up a version of the movie’s origins that has nothing to do with reality but is a lot funnier. I imagined that Zack Snyder had just made 300, an unabashed, balls-out fuck-yeah war movie for MEN. And he was stunned to release it and discover he’d just unintentionally made one of the gayest of gay movies ever. (Right down to the obligatory self-loathing bits).
So, undaunted, he tried to overcompensate by making a movie that was nothing but hot chicks in all kinds of skimpy outfits shooting guns at monsters and zombies. And he borrowed from all the least homo sources he could think of: Women in prison b-movies! War movies! Dragonslaying epics! 90s sci-fi action! (I’m assuming the only reason there’s not a drift-racing sequence in Sucker Punch is because of studio interference). It’d be a mash-up of his own visual style with Kill Bill and Pulp Fiction and The Lord of the Rings and Aliens, and all he needed was a distinctive style for the framing story of his totally not-gay adolescent male fantasy…
Moulin Rouge! Perfect! I’d known that I was just making shit up based on a poster, but my theory was totally blown out of the water when Sucker Punch started out just like a Baz Luhrmann movie. Which may be part of why I was predisposed to like it. In retrospect, it was wrong of me to make unfair assumptions, because for all its grossness, there’s really not that much to feel strongly about. If anything, it feels so slight partly because it’s so sheepish and ashamed to be objectifying women and showing so much gratuitous T&A&E (explosions). I hate to go out on a blurb-ready closing line, but: it’s got all the punch of the posters in a teenage boy’s bedroom.