Seeing hot young scantily-clad girls fighting in frantic action sequences all strung together in a brooding esoteric plot, would have totally popped my cork when I was a teenager. Now, however, copping an eyeful of Emily Browning brandishing big weapons and strutting around in a micro skirt, heels and thigh-high tights, with no legitimate context, just makes me feel like a dirty old man.
After the death of her mother, Baby Doll (Emily Browning) and her sister are left in the care of their abusive stepdad. When Stepdad tries to assault Sister, Baby Doll grabs a gun and attempts to put a bullet in him, but accidently kills her sister instead. Doh!
At least, I think that's what happened in the Sucker Punch prelude. It's shot entirely in slow-mo with an overwrought cover version of the Eurhythmics' classic Sweet Dreams playing over the whole thing, so what transpires during the shooting scene isn't 100% clear. In fact, this prelude had me quickly double checking the DVD cover to make sure I had hired Sucker Punch and not the latest MTV compilation.
Whatever happened in the music video prelude, Baby Doll is promptly carted off to an insane asylum (presumably convicted of her sister's death) where, on arrival, Stepdad bribes an attending physician to have her lobotomised before the end of the week (presumably to stop her revealing his abuses). Shortly after Baby Doll's admission, the asylum somehow turns into a sleazy cabaret night club. The transition is jarring and writer/director Zack Snyder gives no clue, visual or otherwise, as to why it happens. Ultimately, we have to assume that what we are seeing is Baby Doll's fantasy version of her bleak reality, but Snyder just forges ahead unconcerned whether his audience has any idea what the hell he is doing.
Within this fantasy, one of the hospitals' psychiatrists (Carla Gugino) is now a dance instructor who urges Baby Doll to join the ensemble of other "dancers" (in reality they are the other asylum patients). When forced by the dance instructor to shake her groove thing, Baby Doll is somehow transported to yet another fantasy world. Here, she is given a quick mission briefing by some mysterious "wise" old stranger (Scott Glen) before being set upon on by all manner of weird and wonderful monsters. It's at this point that Sucker Punch starts to feel more like a video game than MTV (sorry, I mean, movie), as Baby Doll kicks ass, Scott Pilgrim style, in this fantasy world within a fantasy world.
Once her battle concludes she emerges back at the night club, where everyone present is rapturously applauding her dance routine. We never get to see her dance, because this has happened in the level 1 fantasy world, while we were witnessing the level 2 fantasy world kick-assery. You follow? It's a bit like Inception, without the coherence or purpose.
After her first dance she hatches a plan to escape the asylum, before she is lobotomised, that involves performing three more dances and dragging her fellow patient/dancer friends along for three more fantasy-world-within-a-fantasy-world kick-ass missions. Oddly, none of the missions seem even remotely related to one another, with all the locations and antagonists being completely different each time. The other girls reluctantly agree to help Baby Doll, but once they enter the fantasy world they too dress and fight like they have just escaped a teenage boy's wet dream.
"Do you two have this problem? Everytime I roundhouse, this stupid outfit rides up my ass and pinches my tits!"
Like Snyder’s previous movies (300 and Watchmen) Sucker Punch is visually sumptuous. There probably isn't a frame that isn't somehow computer generated or manipulated, but Snyder uses technology as a means to end, creating truly gorgeous visual imagery. Say whatever else you want about Snyder (and I will very shortly), but you have to acknowledge he's an impressive visual artist.
That’s the good news.
The bad news is that Snyder is a pretty lousy story teller. In fact, he doesn't even really have a story here to tell. He uses a depressingly awful predicament (Baby Doll's abuse and incarceration) as a framework to indulge in pure male fantasy. If you don't think about what you are watching and why it's happening I guess you can get lost in the visuals on offer. But, as soon as you start to think about the fact that Snyder is trying to exhilarate us with a fantasy supposedly conceived by a tortured young woman as escapism from a truly horrific reality; it just feels like all kinds of wrong.
I mean, it's really a double edged sword. If you care about the characters you can't genuinely be enthralled by their escapist adventures, knowing what's happening to them in the real world. If you forget the real world, the escapist adventures all seem a bit hollow because the characters no longer have any grounding in reality, and no real purpose in their missions.
Each time the ensemble of barely dressed hot young women started brandishing powerful firearms in their latest arbitrary videogame-esque fantasy mission, I was reminded of that Chicks Who Love Guns video Ordell (Samuel L Jackson) watches in Jackie Brown. Ultimately, such misogynistic fantasy just doesn't fit with the tale of an abused young woman left to rot in an asylum, which makes Sucker Punch a strangely unsatisfying experience despite is undeniably impressive visual flair.