Sucker Punch is such a bad movie that it raises the bar for what counts as terrible. That's because there's a horrific genius in it. This film will crystallize for you all those half-formed thoughts about what's wrong with Hollywood.
The thing is, director Zack Snyder (300, Watchmen) has a feel for genre. He understands the crappiest aspects of it, anyway - the scenes of CGI-fluffed action interspersed with inexplicable infodumps and character development signaled by costume changes. And he's ably demonstrated his mastery by pouring everything he knows into a single, assaultive genre mashup flick. The worst part? He decided to turn the whole cruddy package into an art flick that comments on itself. Which means that all the fighter planes and zombie soldiers and stylized strippers are intensely boring.
But wait - there's more! That's right: Sucker Punch is a message movie. If you like licking the goo out of a dormitory shower drain, you're going to love the whack-a-mole subtlety of Snyder's social critique.
The plot of Sucker Punch unfolds with almost no dialogue, save for a voiceover about how sometimes angels come to Earth to save us. Protagonist and putative angel Babydoll is a twenty-year-old woman with blonde pigtails who looks like a child. When her mother dies, Babydoll's evil stepfather kills her sister and frames her for it so he can send her to an insane asylum and inherit her mother's money. Just to make sure she'll be no trouble to him, stepdad bribes an abusive orderly named Blue to forge a doctor's signature on a lobotomy authorization form. Babydoll has five days to escape before she'll be lobotomized.
Except instead of escaping to the world beyond her prison, Babydoll escapes to the worlds inside her head. First she converts the entire asylum into an imaginary whorehouse where she and the other inmates become strippers and sex workers who wear tiny outfits and dance for Blue's clientele. When the madame forces Babydoll to dance, she goes into another level of her fantasy world where she's a badass ninja (in an even tinier dress) fighting giant samurai, steampunk zombie soliders, dragons, and robots. She tries to enlist the aid of her fellow inmates/whores in her escape plan, but one by one they're raped, tortured, killed, or all three.
Let's start with the obvious
It's not hard to get the "incoming metaphor" message, so we're obliged to use a couple of brain cells to figure out the symbolism of placing a young woman in a mental institution that becomes a whorehouse that becomes a series of increasingly cheesy action movies.
A few possible interpretations are:
1. Insane people and sex workers are interchangeable.
2. Women can only triumph over adversity in their dreams.
3. Action movies spring from the imaginations of enslaved, mentally unstable prostitutes.
I could go on, but those seemed like the most obvious.
Is this movie Zack Snyder's masturbatory fantasy?
A lot of people have been asking this question, and I think the answer has to be no, unless Snyder has incredibly unsexy fantasies. Though this movie has women in tiny outfits, you're going to see less skin here than you would in an average episode of Baywatch. And unlike Baywatch, there's nothing fun to jack off to in Sucker Punch, unless you're into the sounds of an offscreen rape. There's no flirty winking at the audience, as you might expect in such a film, nor is there anything alluringly kinky. There's not even any stripping, though Babydoll's special power in whorehouse world is that she's such an amazing dancer that she can mesmerize anyone who watches her.
I'm sure Snyder thought he was incredibly clever for coming up with the idea that we'd never see Babydoll do one of her sexy dances. Instead, every time she starts to strip, she dives into one of the handful of ultra-fantasy action movie snippets that punctuate the film. We're not watching Babydoll strip - we're watching her slitting the throats of dragons and shooting enemy soldiers! I believe this is why Snyder has been telling interviewers (including io9's Alasdair Wilkins) that Sucker Punch is empowering to women.
But it's not empowering. Nor is it particularly degrading, either. It's just two empty stereotypes, the sexy whore and the action hero, hurled together to make a mess. Watching Babydoll transition from stripper to fighter feels like watching somebody hog a videogame. Sure it looks kind of cool, but if you can't ever grab the controller and get invested in the avatars bouncing all over the screen, it's just boring and pointless after a few minutes.
The allegedly kickass action sequences
Until I saw Sucker Punch, I would have told you without any irony at all that there is nothing in this world more cool than a dragon fighting an airplane. I believe that so deeply that I own a DVD import of D-War, that monster movie where dragons fight helicopters, and I have watched it multiple times.
I also love pretty much every other genre that appears in the action sequences, from martial arts flick to war fantasy. Purely from a stylistic point of view, Snyder's done a good job putting together his genre mashups, especially when we get to the World War II planes fighting orcs in a Lord of the Rings universe. I wish he'd made an entire World War II in Middle Earth movie, just like Tolkien intended. As I mentioned earlier, Snyder knows his way around genre and there's some good concept design in these bits. But that's all they are: Bits. Babydoll and her friends jump into an action sequence, kill some monsters, and get out.
Without any context or character development or sense of the worlds beyond these fight scenes, we're left with no emotional investment in Babydoll's success. The action is high but the stakes are non-existent. This problem bleeds over into the "real" whorehouse asylum world as well. We're never situated for long enough in a stable storyline to get emotionally engaged in what's happening.
To add insult to injury, the CGI is surprisingly lame in a lot of places - especially the scifi robot world - like a meh console game. So basically we get these perfect little encapsuations of everything that can go wrong with an action movie, namely that we care so little about the situation that the action feels lifeless. To top it off, there's no good fight choreography and the dragons are weak. Where's the Balrog when you need him? Oh I'm sorry - he's off in a movie full of characters you care about, in the middle of a quest narrative that speaks to real-life human experiences other than chewing old gum and stepping on ants for fun.
The main thing that's good about the action sequences is Scott Glenn's recurring role as the wise soldier who sends the women out on missions. He's doing his best David Carradine impression, and looks like he's having a blast as he delivers silly aphorisms and says things like, "You'll need to take two stones out of the dragon's neck and strike them together." Somewhere in the narrative murk of this movie there lurks a great genre parody, and Glenn is its star.
This is a failed movie about why movies fail
From the violence lite of its action sequences, to the Girl, Interrupted-meets-Burlesque atmosphere of the whorehouse asylum, Sucker Punch offers a perfect portrait of storytelling gone wrong. Even the movie's attempt to comment on the problems of storytelling goes wrong. We're supposed to ponder the artificiality of Babydoll's fantasy worlds, and perhaps question our investment in cartoonishly sexed-up female heroes. But the problem is that you can't comment on artificiality by deploying more artificiality. At some point, there has to be something real for us to believe in.
I'm not saying that Snyder should have been more realistic, or dressed Babydoll in fatigues. What this movie lacked was a belief in its characters' agency, their ability to choose their actions. Given that human agency is what drives most narratives, this leaves us with a story that bellyflops. In Sucker Punch, choice and freedom are represented by Babydoll's ability to insert herself into pre-made genre fantasies. Like I said earlier, these are costume changes, not narrative development.
The metaphors available to us after watching this film are sort of like a Banach-Tarski Paradox of restraint. Each time you try to take the restraints apart, they rebuild themselves into an even more enormous set of restraints until you have a cage the size of the sun that was somehow constructed from the surface area of a single spangle on the transparent stripper dress that Babydoll wears during her last adventure. We're watching Babydoll get smashed into narrative dead end after narrative dead end - until finally an icepick comes for her brain.
In the end, you'll wish snuff movies were among the genres that Sucker Punch shuffled into its psychedelic mix. Because reveling in death is less appalling than what Sucker Punch ultimately revels in: The destruction of consciousness itself. That's right - another message of the film is that Babydoll will be liberated by her lobotomy. She can live inside the climactic scene from a sucky action movie forever, facing down bad CGI robots and slitting the throats of baby dragons.
So should you go to see the movie this weekend?
Here is my question for you. Do you like watching mind-numbing entertainment that punches you in the face with a Special Message about how mind-numbing it is? If the answer is yes, then Sucker Punch is the right movie for you.