”For those who fight for it, life has a flavor the sheltered will never know.”
Although I think Watchmen is the best superhero movie yet made, I have not belonged to the Zack-Snyder-is-a-genius crowd until now (after all, Watchmen was simply based on existing comic-book storyboards). But Sucker Punch impressed me like few movies ever have.
I know why Sucker Punch has been getting bad reviews from professional critics. It is because those critics have taken the movie the way Warner Bros. executives have marketed it: as a mindless CGI-action blow-out for an audience of high schoolers. Critics were told to leave their brain at the door, and they duly did as they were told. Well, the joke is on them, and Zack Snyder will get the last laugh: they all got sucker-punched.
What happens in this special effects-crammed comic book-like movie is that Baby Doll (played by the stunningly beautiful Emily Browning in what may be the performance of her life) is framed for her younger sister’s death by an abusive stepfather and put in a mental asylum for young women. Here, she and the other patients are helped by the well-intentioned psychiatrist Dr. Gorski (Carla Gugino) to go through therapeutic measures designed to make them understand and deal with their past problems, comprising a healing process, or, for the involuntary patients, a progress towards freedom. In the movie, this process manifests as new layers of reality. As Baby Doll’s journey of self-discovery and freedom develops, the asylum morphs into a brothel. From being problematic and uncontrollable mental patients, the women in the asylum have now evolved into whores – sexual objects under male control – which is actually a freer state than before (after all, now they are useful and not just a problem), but still a distinct form of slavery. Baby Doll performs erotic dances that blow the minds of the brothel’s clients. These dances are represented as extreme action scenes (some reviewers maintain that they are Baby Doll’s fantasies), where the girls of the asylum/brothel are fighting in amazing surrealist wars, wielding swords and big guns and fighting dragons in apocalyptic wastelands. These action scenes are not just fantasies, however; they are symbolic of social changes that advance the social history being chronicled in the movie. Each action sequence comprises a quest for an item essential for the purpose of shedding the shackles of enslavement.
The character of Baby Doll eventually turns out to be an invention of the real main character and narrator, Sweet Pea (Abbie Cornish), and the other characters, too, are all different aspects of Sweet Pea, contributing to her therapeutic healing process. This is the surface level story that the movie is telling: Sweet Pea is coming to terms with the death of her sister, who remains a living character through most of the movie (Rocket, played by Jena Malone), as it takes Sweet Pea a long time to accept that she is dead. And only once she has done so, can she be sane and free.
Sucker Punch is a deeply serious, mature and artistic movie. The more you think about it, the more it will reward you. Any viewer that bothers to pay attention will catch on to the surface story of Sweet Pea and her sister’s abusive past which is projected on-screen as the seemingly imaginary Baby Doll character, whose quest for freedom parallels Sweet Pea’s psychological healing process. But let us go deeper, for this remarkable movie is another Matrix, another Pleasantville, and another Inception.
I simply can’t help quoting something from Euripides’ Medea here:
Let the sacred rivers run uphill to their springs;
all principles of order are reversed.
For it is men whose thoughts are treacherous,
who break their oaths sworn on the gods.
But songs of praise will turn my life to good repute,
since honor comes to the race of women
and insults shall cease to defame us.
Now the ancient poets’ muses can stop
their hymn on our unfaithfulness.
For time has much to say about the lot
of us and men throughout the years.
We now live in an age where time has begun to say something about the historical situations of men and women, and Sucker Punch is to a very great extent Zack Snyder’s song of praise for women, and a description of the role of women up through human history.
The apparent main character, Baby Doll, is essentially a representation of female sexuality, and her situation – the erotic dances – depends on how the surrounding society feels either threatened or impressed by it, which changes up through history. Early on, society mainly feels threatened, and is compelled to impose restraints and control measures on female sexuality. Hence the asylum and the brothel. In more modern and liberated times, however, culture as a whole is becoming increasingly impressed by feminine beauty and self-determination, as reflected in the fashion industry and the alleged objectification of women, which is actually, to a great extent, a worshipping and a new discovery of beauty and sexuality that sets the stage for the genders being equally powerful. This is represented by the action scenes where the girls become increasingly take-charge in their attitude, stand up for themselves and become icons of action that are in no way inferior to their male counterparts. Action is not just a masculine thing.
This is what the movie is chronicling. The historical development of women and their plight is a harsh and ungrateful journey which is however crowned with redemption and vindication in the foreseeable future. Male dominated world history progresses from seeing women as dangerous femme fatales and to finally accepting them as equal partners, resulting in the abolishing of the patriarchy. Sucker Punch doesn’t show the end of this process in explicit detail; it focuses on symbolically representing one woman’s – Sweet Pea’s – development inside the confines of an oppressive social structure, and her eventual release from it. But the overall implication for cultural evolution – the transition from patriarchy to gender equality – is implicit in the symbolism.
Sucker Punch is an absolutely brilliant movie – a multi-layered art movie wrapped in the guise of some over-the-top gaudy action blow-out. This, gentlemen, is entertainment!
The Triple-Play DVD + Blu-ray release features an extended cut of the movie that provides some much needed additional details and story points, most notably Baby Doll’s much more in-depth encounter with “the High-Roller” – a pivotal scene that was cut by the Warner Bros. bozos in the theatrical release. Extra features include animated shorts and a Maximum Movie Mode that is probably the best one of its kind yet. A magnificent release!
Sucker Punch is out on DVD and blu-ray 8th August 2011.
Director: Zack Snyder
Cast: Emily Browning, Abbie Cornish, Jena Malone, Jamie Chung, Vanessa Hudgens, Carla Gugino, Oscar Isaac and others.
Runtime: 110 min. (theatrical) / 128 min. (extended)