Ash rains down on a WWI trench. The sound of gunfire echoes, and a squadron of barely dressed young girls takes on clockwork Germans. The sky is a deep green.
This is the Vancouver set of Sucker Punch, well over a year ago. Avatar hasn’t even come out yet - that’s how long ago this is. Zack Snyder sits not far from the action, watching on a video monitor and he yells cut as the choreography of the sequence comes to a conclusion.
The WWI trenches (which lead to a bunker) make up just one of the four stages occupied by Sucker Punch. Just down the hall is the grim tiled hallway of a mental institution; around the corner from that are the sleazy rooms of a brothel. Elsewhere is a huge dance hall, getting readied for a large song and dance sequence. In the middle is a long hall covered in storyboards and concept art, spelling out each of the weird realities of Sucker Punch.
Zack Snyder’s first original feature script, Sucker Punch is a mash-up of fetish, fashion, nerd culture, cinema history and whatever else it is that floats Snyder’s boat. This film feels like his id unleashed on the big screen, a massive electrical monster of sex and violence and… song. Yes, song, because each of the film’s four huge action set pieces are played against a burlesque routine.
Let’s back track and try to explain what Sucker Punch really IS. It’s a film with at least three levels of reality; in the ‘real world,’ a young girl is brought to an insane asylum, where she’s scheduled to get a lobotomy. In her dream world she’s a prisoner in a brothel where she and versions of her fellow asylum inmates must dance for and seduce men. In that world instead of waiting for a doctor to arrive and lobotomize her she’s waiting for The Big Roller (Jon Hamm) to arrive and pop her cherry.
But within that fantasy world there’s another level of fantasy; whenever our heroine gets on stage to do a burlesque number she closes her eyes and disappears into a deeper level of pretend, where she kills orcs, fights dragons, rides trains on the moons of Saturn and battle clockwork Germans in WWI. In each of these fantasy worlds she must search out an item to help her escape from the real world asylum.
It’s a heady stew of concepts, much bigger than anything Snyder has tried before. Each reality echoes in the next - in the real world Doctor Gorksi, played by Carla Gugino, attempts to reach the girls through musical therapy. That music echoes down to the burlesque brothel. And the trappings of that brothel - a stylized dragon wallpaper in one of the pleasure rooms, for instance - echoes down to the deepest fantasy world level.
And of course since this is Zack Snyder saying that any level is ‘reality’ is pushing it. “There’s very little that’s naturalistic,” Gugino said on set. “Except for the emotions, which are being played for real. But the circumstances are incredibly heightened.”
Emily Browning plays Baby Doll, the girl whose fantasies inform the entire story. Browning and her co-stars underwent months of rigorous training to prepare for the action necessities of the film, and that bonded them completely. “I was worried with five girls on a film together it could get bitchy, but it’s not like that at all,” Browning said. “I think it’s because we trained together and so the first time we met we were sweating and crying and bleeding and that makes crazy bonds.”
Evidence of that crazy bond? The interview with Browning is conducted as co-star Jenna Malone (Rocket) is rehearsing her big dance number. Browning doesn’t need to be there, and neither do the rest of the cast, including Vanessa Hudgens, Abby Cornish and Jamie Chung, who have all showed up to cheer Malone on.
Malone’s character has a sexy nurse iconography. Each of the girls has their own ‘type,’ which seems to map to fetish concepts as well as anime style. The type pays off in their fantasy world personas as well as their burlesque sequences. Rocket is perceived by Baby Doll as nurturing, so she’s a nurse. Her stage show is centered around a giant neon hypodermic needle; the actual needle itself doubles as a pole for pole dancing. Rocket is backed up by dancers in crazy medical gear, and looking at the Sucker Punch track listing I’d bet that her song is Jefferson Airplane’s White Rabbit (“One pill makes you larger, and one pill makes you small”), reinterpreted by Emiliana Torrini.
You’ve seen hints of the four major action set pieces of the film. Producer Debbie Snyder walked the assembled press through each of them, explaining that they’re ten to fifteen minutes a piece. One has Baby Doll facing off against a 12 foot mechanical samurai. One has the girls fighting robots on a science fiction train. One has them battling knights and slaying dragons. One has them killing the aforementioned Germans. Each of them is heightened, but related to the realities above them - we saw the set for Baby Doll’s father’s study, which had a shelf lined with WWI books.
Watching some pre-viz of Baby Doll versus the mechanical Samurai I saw that Sucker Punch is truly the most Zack Snyder thing that Zack Snyder could do. Those who have written off his stylistic tics probably won’t want to even bother here, but those - like me - who find Snyder’s hyperkinetic filmmaking to be a breathtaking alternative to the grim attempts at ‘reality’ in movies, will find much reason to be excited. This is the ultimate paean to imagination, a film whose only boundaries are what the filmmakers can come up with. Anything and everything goes in Sucker Punch.
Now we just wait a month to see if Snyder pulled it all off.