Title: Sucker Punch
Watched: January 5, 2012
Summary: Style over substance
The concept for Sucker Punch, whacked as it is, is actually pretty decent. The movie is also gorgeous and stylized. Yet… it just doesn’t really work at any rational level. Part Kill Bill, part Pan’s Labyrinth, part Inception, part Sin City, part video game cut scene, this film is all CGI glitz and fetishistic style. It’s also worth noting that the writer/director, Zach Snyder, brought us those other style over substance “classics”: Watchmen and 300.
As to the plot. Wait, I can’t really use that word because as I’ve discussed at length before plot is the action created by opposition to the protagonist’s desire. The characterization in this film is about as solid as a whiff of gunpowder and we have only the most basic desire: escape. The film opens with a comic book style summary of the setup: girl has been orphaned, framed by her evil step-father, committed to a mental asylum (in the late 40s), and scheduled for a lobotomy. From this grim — but actually dramatically interesting — setup we devolve into a series of nested fantasies.
Now don’t get me wrong. I love reality bending films. Pan’s Labyrinth is my favorite film of the last decade. They’re just hard to get right and it’s key to overlap and contrast the inner and outer worlds. In Sucker Punch, the outermost (or real) world is seen for about three minutes at the beginning and again for about three minutes at the end. Oddly, a middle layer in which the girl (named only Babydoll) imagines herself a prisoner not in a mental institution but in a stylish brothel serves up what little plot and characterization we have. This itself parallels with the real world and might have been interesting if we spent any time there. Instead we are propelled one after another into a series of really cool looking fantasy set pieces. Oddly, the “plan” to escape the institution (brothel, asylum — both? neither?) is broken down into a quest of five video game like steps, conveniently provided by Scott Glenn in a role known only as “The Wise Man”. Each step, which in the midworld amounts to things like: “steal a lighter from the fat-cat mayor who is visiting to have his way with the fifteen year-old hotties” is instead rendered into an “action packed” fantasy that has very very little bearing on the task. Also, this setup, which is pretty awful but intriguing is whitewashed due to a pansy PG-13 rating.
We have a big fight in a cool asian temple against three giant robo-samurai-knights. Each has his own weapon! Yah video games. This even includes a Doom-style gatling gun.
Immersion in a steampunk super-sized World War I trench battle, which honestly for about one minute took my breath away.
A return to the assault on Helm’s Deep, complete with orcs in danger of lawsuit from WETA and big fire breathing dragons (the dragon is the lighter — yeah, that’s deep connection).
And a sci-fi shootout bomb run on a super high tech train filled with killer robots. Snooze!
The first three of these, particularly the WWI fight, are gorgeous. I mean really cool looking. But they are ten-fifteen minute fight scenes with almost no dialog set to ethereal music like a version of “White Rabbit” sung by Emiliana Torrini. (NOTE: I did order the soundtrack, that part was awesome) For a minute or three each they seem intensely cool. But they’re just shooting, jumping, slicing and more shooting. We don’t know who these characters are. They’re in a dream within a dream. And we don’t care. They are shooting at thousands of horde-like video game style enemies. We don’t care. Somehow each of these fights results in achieving the fairly straightforward midworld objective. The connection is highly non-obvious.
Highly non-obvious = non-existent.
It’s also worth noting the extremely bizarre infusion of manga/game infused stylization. First of all, by including Comic book, 40s faux-gangster, Asian, WWI, Fantasy, and Sci-Fi we have a serious total complete massive buttload overabundance of style. Any one of these would have made for a highly stylized firm. Extreme too too too too muchness. But the girls in their weird “warrior schoolgirl” outfits is whacky — although I am a lover of midriff — and I could have gotten drunk taking a shot every time someone thunked down a gun in slow-mo or gotten rich with a penny for every giant CGI gun casing that flipped toward the camera. This is of the more is more school of filmmaking. Synder should have studied more closely what makes Pan’s Labyrinth a brilliant film: Two styles contrasting, with one being hyper realistic, a strong tie between the fantasy and reality planes. And most importantly: highly developed characters including one of the most terrifying genuine evil types to cross the silver screen in years.
Sucker Punch sort of totally could have been cool if we cared.