Sucker Punch has such an extraordinary trailer that there ought to be an Oscar category for trailers, just to reward it. That may be the only recognition the film ever gets, because no full length feature film in history could live up to that kind promise, just in terms of sheer bombast. And, judging by the initial critical reaction, nor has this one got a Babydoll’s chance in a House for the Mentally Insane of getting any industry recognition: it’s going down like a burning zeppelin with the critics. A “crass women’s penitentiary picture reconceived for today’s manga- and vidgame-savvy crowd” says one (presumably not manga- and “vidgame” savvy) critic; “built so as to dispense with the need for narrative logic” says another. A pity, because I think the critics are wildly wrong here. With any luck the public will have a different view, because Sucker Punch almost lives up to its trailer.
It could be the greatest fantasy motion picture since The Matrix. It could also be the greatest disaster since The Hindenburg. In either case the ringside seat is a scorcher.
Let’s see, then.
In fairness, the film does miss a couple of the trailer’s features: There’s no Led Zeppelin on the soundtrack, for one thing. Nonetheless, Zack Snyder uses every trick in the book. It’s beautifully shot. Every frame is a gem. The technology – there’s more green screen here than in Sky Captain and the World Of Tomorrow – is sympathetic, clever and impressive. It’s artistic. It oozes style. It is in glorious two dimensions.
There’s a little preamble which winds up in an all-girl asylum before things descend impossibly into a psychotic imaginarium of kick-ass ninja dolls, samurai, monster robots, fire-breathing dragons, sepia-tinted Nazi zeppelins and crash-&-burning bi-planes: yea: all of the above. Amongst it all, statuesque, like a serene core at the eye of the storm is super-cool Scott Glenn, a multiple personality avatar dispensing one-line platitudes to his jailbait harem as if the structural integrity of universe required it. He intones Alexander Hamilton’s aphorism: “Stand for something, or you’ll fall for anything”.
Sucker Punch, indeed, stands for everything. Anything, even. So much does it play like a seventeen-year-old’s wet dream that it is tempting to write it off as one.
It would appear many critics have been duly tempted. Their major complaints: Lack of wit. No plot. Wafer-thin characters. Gratuitous girlitude. The last two, sure – but, come on: the context is comic book bravura. What did you expect: Kurosawa? Yes, parts of it are like stages of a video game, they are meant to be. Sucker Punch borrows from The Matrix, but repays with interest.
But lack of wit? This is a brilliantly funny picture. And no plot? Au contraire: that’s a different story. In their haste to write this off, I fear the critics have forgotten to pay attention. Ladies and Gentlemen of the Jury: before you bemoan a lack of intellectual endeavour, use some of your own: at least have a go at trying to puzzle things out. And there are some puzzles, if you only look for them: narrative peculiarities which Snyder has gone to some lengths to achieve. It’s only fair to suppose he did this for a reason.
Firstly, the opening scene: pay attention. We open in a vaudeville theatre. The velvet curtains open on a set that is a young girl’s bedroom. We see a blond girl sitting on her bed with her back to us. Take note: This is a theatrical set of some description. It’s a play. It’s not real. The camera tracks in and around the girl on the bed, and as it does so the set resolves into an actual house. Then we see the girl’s face. It is Babydoll (Emily Browning). Note how we are introduced to Babydoll: on a stage. It is important.
Babydoll’s mother is dead. An Evil Stepfather circles like a vulture. He tries to have his way with Babydoll. She resists. He locks the door, and turns to Babydoll’s little sister. Babydoll tries to intervene, but little sister winds up dead. Again, remember this. Look out for parallels with other characters later in the movie.
Babydoll is framed for her sister’s murder and corruptly declared insane. She is institutionalised and maliciously scheduled for a quick lobotomy. Again, note how this happens: To a reworking of Eurhythmics’ “Sweet Dreams Are Made Of This”, a Black Maria rolls up the hill to “Lennox House”, an institution “FOR THE MENTALLY INSANE” – or just of sweet dreams? Warders and orderlies leer. Babydoll is given a tour. She winds up in a common room full of crazies called “the theatre”. At this point there is a sudden and jarring transition from Asylum to Bordello. Suddenly we are in a Burlesque Club of some sort – where did the Asylum go? We meet a showgirl Sweetpea, during a rehearsal. She breaks off, mid scene, aghast at the notion that the production should contemplate her character, an orphan, being sent to an asylum for a lobotomy. Again, note this scene.
These are hardly subtle clues. Yet still this secret seems to have eluded Hollywood’s finest: Is this film really about Babydoll? It is not. Whose world is imaginary and whose is real?
Sucker Punch is certainly not perfect – it’s 20 minutes too long, and for a film featuring five bombshells in their knickers, it is oddly sexless. Blue Jones (Oscar Isaac) is a bloodless villain. But as far as science fiction/fantasy goes, it is so much more sophisticated and imaginative than Avatar, The Last Airbender or utterly pitiful Mars Needs Moms as indeed to seem like Kurosawa. It is stylish. It is witty. It has more bombast than Elton John’s birthday. It has an attention span of about thirty seconds.
A Matrix, therefore, for the YouTube generation. God forbid that they make a sequel.
Director: Zack Snyder
Stars: Emily Browning, Vanessa Hudgens, Abbie Cornish
Runtime: 109 min
Country: USA, Canada