Sucker Punch is the Zack Snyderiest film imaginable. For some of you that’s an immediate warning, while for others it’s intriguing. Like it or not, there’s no denying that Sucker Punch is the work of an auteur; every frame is drenched in Snyder’s vision. There is little compromise, and for the first two acts Sucker Punch gets much right.
What Sucker Punch gets right it gets so right as to be brilliant. The action in the film is thrilling and next level, the design of the world is incredible and gorgeous and the themes explored are deep, dark and haunting. But what Sucker Punch gets wrong keeps it from being a truly great film; instead Sucker Punch is an incredibly flawed piece of ambitious art that dazzles and excites, but in the end fails.
But that failure is a noble one, and to see Zack Snyder stretch the way he does here, going for big ideas and aiming at big themes, is exhilarating. I’d rather have filmmakers fail like this every day of the week than succeed in the way most do, by being bland and safe and stupid. There are many critiques that can be lobbed at Sucker Punch, but stupidity simply isn’t a valid one.
From the opening frames of the film Snyder warns the audience that this isn’t going to be a standard, simple story. Riffing on Baz Luhrman’s Moulin Rouge, Sucker Punch opens on a curtained stage, and that curtain pulls back to reveal the bedroom of protagonist Baby Doll, played by the otherworldy Emily Browning. You’ll read much about the way the film goes between the ‘real world’ and ‘fantasy worlds,’ but the truth is there is no real world, ever. The film never tries to capture anything resembling reality, and Snyder has no interest in anything as boring as realism. He’s letting you know from the beginning, and it’s up to you if you want to come along for his ride.
I wanted to come along. Realism is the weed that chokes imagination out of movies; cinema is a dream state where reality is dictated by image proximity, not by logic. Just as in a dream cinema can be an almost stream of consciousness experience, but also just like a dream cinema should mean something. When we sleep our brains create worlds that allow us to digest what we’ve experienced that day; when we sit down in a movie theater great directors create worlds that allow us to digest everything and anything around us.
What Sucker Punch is exploring is twenty years of geek culture, smashed together in a glorious mess. Snyder isn’t homaging specific films but rather searching for the source of the films, comics and games we’ve been consuming for decades. The film is after the collective unconscious source, the well that feeds all the steampunk art or the fantasy novels or the FPS games. In a world of recycled culture there’s something truly exciting about transcending simple riffs on movies and going after the larger origins of these things. Whether he succeeds or not must be judged on a case by case basis (the film is essentially a series of psychedelic action vignettes), but I think for the most part he does.
But there’s more than just playing with the building blocks of nerd culture going on here. That would be fun, but Snyder is interested in something trickier, more complex and possibly just outside of his grasp - he wants to explore the role of women in culture, the impact of the male gaze and the concept of sexualized self-empowerment. That’s a big topic for a supposedly dumb action film.
The premise of Sucker Punch is simple - narrative isn’t what Snyder is really interested in here - and it follows Baby Doll being wrongfully imprisoned in a mental institution. In the institution she escapes to a fantasy world where she’s actually held in a burlesque house/brothel. In the brothel she discovers that she has an almost superhuman dancing ability - while she dances she herself is transported into further fantasy worlds, while all the men who watch her are transfixed completely.
I feel like it’s no accident that the film is set in the late 60s. On one level it allows Snyder to use the impending threat of a lobotomy as the driving force for Baby Doll’s urge to escape, but in a film as willfully anachronistic as this one why would he bother nailing himself to actual dates in medical science (lobotomies fell drastically out of favor after this point)? What’s interesting is the wider world outside the institution, one we never see, but one with which we are all very familiar - the revolutionary years of the 60s, with hippies and drugs and free love dominating our cultural landscape. None of those things appear in Sucker Punch, but I think Sucker Punch is at least partially about those things.
The cultural revolutions of the 60s were incredibly progressive but also weirdly Neanderthal; while hundreds of thousands risked life and limb to agitate for equal rights for all races and to end war, very little attention was paid to women’s rights. The revolution of the 60s espoused free love but not really free women; this was all about the men getting all the pussy they wanted, and not truly about reciprocal pleasure and freedom. Women were free to be highly sexual, but not much else, even in the counterculture.
Which brings us back to the asylum/brothel; Baby Doll and her fellow inmates find strength in the embrace of their own sexuality (we never see Baby Doll dancing, but at one point another of the girls, the very strong Sweet Pea (the physically imposing Abbie Cornish), complains that her dances are nothing more than hip thrusts and gyrations - she’s just doing a fuck-me dance), and they use their sexuality to move forward a plan that will allow them to escape the brothel. But no matter how strong they feel after a minor victory - getting a map, getting a lighter - they remain constantly under the heel of the male powers that be.
That’s the double edged sword of sexual empowerment, the film says. Women can own their bodies and their sexualities and find their strength in that, and can even pull one over on the patriarchy on occasion, but in the end the oppression by men is too strong, too complete. A fuck-me dance isn’t enough, the film says.
The problem that Snyder has is that he can’t find a way to really make that thematic element work in the third act. On paper where the film goes in act three makes sense and is strong, but in execution it stumbles and feels flat. For most of the film’s running time Snyder has been juggling two very different things; he’s been all about visual spectacle and all about thematic depth, but he never manages to fully reconcile them in the end. What that means is that the climactic moments of the last act abandon the huge, astounding spectacle that came before; suddenly stuck in straight narrative mode, Sucker Punch doesn’t recover. What happens makes sense, storywise and especially thematically (especially thematically; again, the ending of the film is wonderful on paper), but doesn’t work cinematically.
That’s a pretty huge letdown from a guy who had spent the last hour and a half proving how cinematically skilled he was. The action scenes in Sucker Punch, each being a discrete set piece barely connected to the narrative (such as it is) and driven purely by visuals and rhythm, are incredible. Each action sequence has its own feel, its own pace and its own style, which means they never get boring. You know that nothing bad can happen to any of the characters in the action scenes - after all, they’re all fantasy sequences in Baby Doll’s mind - but that doesn’t eliminate the visceral thrill of well-staged action.
As standalone pieces they’re amazing; I do wish that Snyder had figured out a way to better integrate them emotionally into the story he’s telling. Again, it’s part of his problem with connecting the thematic drive of the film with the visual drive. I don’t mind particularly that the movie is narratively weak; in many ways Sucker Punch reminds me of Jodorowsky film where what you’re consuming isn’t standard narrative but hallucinogenic vision and concentrated mythology and theme. I’m not equating Snyder with Jodorowsky when it comes to sheer talent, but I think that the larger, formal intent of Sucker Punch isn’t far from what Jodorowsky was doing with films like The Holy Mountain and El Topo, neither of which are traditional narrative stories. I walked out of Sucker Punch called Snyder Jockorowsky, and I certainly wouldn’t mind seeing the two collaborate on bringing some of the master’s amazing scifi comics to the big screen.
Some have complained that Sucker Punch feels like a video game, which is a weird complaint to make. Yes, it does feel like that, and very much on purpose. The structure of the film - Baby Doll and friends have to find a map, a flame, a key - is lifted entirely from video games. But more than that Sucker Punch feels like PLAYING a video game. Earlier this year I hated Battle: Los Angeles for giving me the feeling of watching a video game over someone’s shoulder; Sucker Punch’s action scenes succeed by making me feel like I’m pushing the buttons. Yeah, they might all be Quicktime Events, but they’re immersive and complete, as all great video game experiences are. When you’re playing a truly great game the distance between you and the action melts away, and that’s what happens in Sucker Punch.
There will be no action scenes this year as good as those in Sucker Punch. Certainly there will be none as bugfuck out there and impossible and beautiful. I don’t know that Sucker Punch will be much appreciated in 2011, but I watched those action scenes and thought of the kids whose minds were blown by Scott Pilgrim now coming to this movie and soaking in such forward thinking and artistic action. If the 70s filmmakers grew up on TV and the 90s filmmakers grew up on their films, the filmmakers of the 2020s will have grown up on video games, and the films of Edgar Wright and Zack Snyder will be touchstones for the way they attempt to bring video game sensibilities into another medium.
But again, you have to keep coming back to the end of the film. It’s a bummer to see a movie so big and ambitious trip over its own feet in the end, but that’s the danger of really going for it, as Snyder does. And even though I think the director doesn’t get to where he’s trying to go, there’s much in Sucker Punch that feels revolutionary and like it could be speaking to people who need to hear its message. At the end of the film a bus drives off into the distance, passing a cornfield with a scarecrow staked in it. That scarecrow made me think of The Wizard of Oz, and in many ways Sucker Punch is The Wizard of Oz for the abused, the scarred, the marginalized. Some will look at Sucker Punch with eyes full of chauvinism and not realize that the geeky fantasies Snyder explores are now held by girls as well; the days when girls just wanted puppies and romance in their movies are long over, but no one seems to have fully understood that. Zack Snyder - and his wife and producing partner Debbie - seem to have figured that out.
Sucker Punch will speak to the disenfranchised girls, the girls who feel weird or ugly, the girls who are finally being able to admit that they like video games and action movies as much as their brothers and boyfriends. It tells them that the sexy, empowered image of the female geek is great but that the real strength doesn’t come from a cosplay outfit showing off a tight midsection or a cavern of cleavage (although it doesn’t dismiss that either) - it tells them that in the end the strength of women comes not from dancing alone and using sexuality but from standing together and using sisterhood. It’s almost cliche, but the best cliches are truths, and the truth here is that while shaking your ass will get you so far, the only way to truly escape the oppression of the man is to be there for each other.