If you have read the reviews of Zack Snyder’s Sucker Punch you have no doubt heard that it is insultingly bad, a complete failure of filmmaking. While the glee some reviewers seem to be taking in eviscerating the movie is disgusting, there is some truth to them. Sucker Punch is largely a failure. But many of the reviews seem to miss the point entirely. Roger Moore‘s, of the Orlando Sentinel, review called it “an unerotic unthrilling erotic thriller.” While I am sure he pleased with his wittiness, the quote exposes just how much he missed the point. Sucker Punch is something of a thriller, it sits in between that and about five other genres, one thing it is definitely not, nor is it intended to be, is erotic. Though someone judging the movie based on its trailers could be forgiven for thinking so. Sucker Punch appears to be cotton candy; light and sweet and wholly insubstantial, but it is not. It is cotton candy wrapped around a corn dog; there is substance there even if you maybe wish there were not.
Sucker Punch tells the story of “Babydoll”, a young girl whose evil stepfather has her committed to an insane asylum and scheduled for a lobotomy in order to get his hands on her inheritance. With the help of some fellow inmates, Babydoll masterminds an escape attempt. Instead of this simply occurring in the asylum, the movie takes place in two levels of imagination. The first, which is seen through the bulk of the movie, is the asylum as a bordello. The corrupt orderly becomes a ruthless pimp and the doctor trying to help the girls becomes the Madame. When the women attempt to retrieve one of the items needed for their escape the world becomes a fantastic battlefield, where the characters become soldiers.
Problems arise with the exact relationship among the three levels of reality. Sometimes it works great, like the lighter (with a dragon on it) needed becoming a fire-breathing dragon. Sometimes the parallel is not clear. In the bordello, Babydoll entrances everybody with an implied striptease, but what is she doing to draw attention in the asylum? The concept is interesting, but the execution is less confusing than confused itself.
The missions, each set to a different song that it just too meaningful, are the films highlights. Whatever problems Snyder may have with storytelling, he knows how to film an action scene, slow motion notwithstanding. The mission’s settings are not believable because the settings are intentionally and inherently unbelievable. They take place in fantastic, but coherent worlds. These are the cotton candy. The young stars, Emily Browning, Abby Cornish and Jena Malone, do a great job in the action scenes. The enemies they face are delightfully unbelievable. 20 foot-tall samurais and clockwork zombie German soldiers. They are beaten by barely more than teen girls, but these scenes are expressly fantasies, they are deliberately unreal. Though the movie may falter in other places, the actions scenes are great.
The bordello/asylum parts are less good. It seems like parts of it were not completely thought out. Dr. Gorski’s position is particularly problematic. If she is a doctor, shouldn’t she have a better idea of what is happening with her patients, especially is she is supposed to care. It does play with the viewers expectations. Positioned as a “geeky” movie, shown at comic conventions and whatnot, Sucker Punch is not what they expected. While the characters are dressed in somewhat skimpy outfits, and I’m being generous to call them somewhat so (I mean really look at how much skin is showing), Snyder makes sure never to titillate. While the setting and outfits may suggest sexiness, the movie is deliberately unsexy. It is the same with Babydoll’s dances. We know they are sexy due to everyone else’s reactions, but we never see her dance. Babydoll and friends are put into the most powerless position possible, then take control of it. We are supposed to know they are exploited, but not given a chance to revel in the exploitation.
The problem is not with these scenes empowering intentions, but with the clumsiness of their execution. Snyder knows neither subtly nor irony, (I once heard that somebody tried to explain subtly to Snyder, but Snyder punched him the face until he exploded. I assume that is why no one has had the courage to try with irony.) which is often a strength (the action scenes) but here it is a weakness. The setting of the asylum and the bordello is poorly explained and poorly resolved. Sucker Punch wants to be deep and meaningful, but its message is not particularly deep and its meaning is not clear.
Sucker Punch is admirable in its failure. It could have just been the action scenes, and possibly been a better movie for it, but Snyder tried to do more. It does spectacle, and does it well, but the depth it strives for just is not there. It is that corn dog in the middle of your cotton candy; it may be more filling, but it clashes with the sugary sweetness of outside and is not particularly good on its own. Still, you have to admire the audacity of trying to put a corn dog in the middle of some cotton candy.