Monday, March 28, 2011

"Sucker Punch"

Sucker Punch - Directed by Zack Snyder, written by Snyder and Steve Shibuya, starring Emily Browning, Abbie Cornish, Jena Malone, Carla Gugino, Oscar Isaac, and Scott Glenn - Rated PG-13

"If you don't stand for something, you'll fall for anything." I'll stand up for this movie while it continues to take a critical beating.

Director Zack Snyder is well known in the realm of geekdom these days. He has dealt with zombies (the remake of Dawn of the Dead) and has adapted the works of comic book legends Frank Miller (300) and Alan Moore (Watchmen). And Snyder has recently been given the reigns for the next Superman film. The point of all this is that Snyder makes movies for those of us who read comics, play videogames, and watch tons of movies. Sucker Punch is a movie with that audience (and that audience alone) in mind.

Sucker Punch has a fairly simple story – young institutionalized girls use fantasy worlds to escape reality and the mental institution itself – and a chaotic style. The film is a textbook example of style over substance. Instead of a somber, quiet scene to show a character’s grief, Snyder presents music video-like vignettes to hurry things along, which is incongruous since the director uses so much slow motion in the scenes. But it all looks cool and it’s simply entertaining. The idea of a pretty but empty film might be considered a negative, but if you go with it, what’s the harm? There are already plenty of intense dramas out there.

There isn’t much in the way of complexity in the film, but here goes anyway. Baby Doll (Emily Browning) is locked away in a mental institution by her evil stepdad who sets up a lobotomy for her as soon as possible. Baby Doll then enters into a fantasy where the institution becomes a night club/brothel. The girls are still kept against their will, but it’s a bit more lighthearted and it gives all of the women an excuse to dress sexy (more on that later). Baby Doll turns out to be a dancer so amazing that whenever men watch her they become so entranced that the girls can steal needed items from them to make their escape. Sucker Punch isn’t a movie about dancing, though. When Baby Doll starts to dance, the fantasy is taken one step deeper into one action-filled world after another.

Sucker Punch succeeds as an insane action-fantasy film. Each world the girls inhabit is in the middle of a war. Some look familiar (a World War I trench-warfare setting or a siege on a medieval castle) while others are fantastical (a train speeding towards a city in the midst of a robot civil war), but even the familiar settings feature ridiculous elements. The soldiers in the trenches are steam-powered Nazi zombies (and that World War I claim above is not a typo, these are Nazis in a WWI setting, hardly the most ridiculous aspect of the film, though). That castle being stormed? One half of the battle is being fought by orcs, at a castle that houses a dragon. As for the other setting…well, you saw “robot civil war,” right? Also, some giant samurai are thrown in for good measure. Basically, this is geek Valhalla.

Into this chaos enter gun-toting, samurai sword-wielding beauties dressed as if their costume designer was a 13-year-old boy. That statement might raise a few questions, but I’ll get to that in a second. There is an audience out there that reads that set up and thinks, “Awesome!” If you fall into that demographic, then Sucker Punch is definitely for you. It is kind of awesome and the action is brutal (even though the film is rated PG-13) and constant. (Be warned, though, it’s almost too chaotic. I got a bit dizzy watching some of the action play out on an IMAX screen.)

Back to the question that might arise from the summary: whose fantasy world are we actually watching? Sure, women are standing up for themselves and taking matters into their own hands, but that doesn’t make this a feminist film. Just look at the initial fantasy that is cooked up. Women escape reality by pretending to be whores (even though the sex part of their jobs is only implied, never shown)? How is that a good thing? And the idea that they can only get things done by dancing in such a provocative way that men go catatonic just watching them doesn’t exactly scream, “We can do it!” There aren’t many dramatic scenes for the ladies, but it seems like any time they’re not kicking ass they’re crying. And while this isn’t one of those films where it ends up that all the women really needed was a man to save them, there are still moments like that and the men do have all of the power in the film.

It’s easy to say, “Calm down, it’s just a movie,” and this critic is actually someone who would say that. Sucker Punch is a fun film that isn’t out to make a statement on the status of women in the world today. And it’s not dangerous in a stereotype-creating way. But the issue is there (and some are finding it much more serious than I, as evidenced by a few articles about it, like this one) and it might affect your enjoyment of the film.

Feminist or anti-feminist, it’s hard to argue that Sucker Punch features complex characters. Baby Doll and her cohorts (Sweet Pea, Rocket, Blondie, and Amber) are little more than walking clich├ęs of abused women. Obviously, there wasn’t much time spent on character development. (Hell, they didn’t even bother to come up with a fifth cutesy nickname for Amber.) But so what? So Snyder is more of a director than he is a writer. Cinema is a visual medium after all, so it feels wrong to fault a film for just being stylish. It was hard to care much about what happened with any of the characters, though.

As far as the performances of these one-note ladies, most of them are ably done. Emily Browning sleepwalks through the film as Baby Doll, but that is kind of a requirement for the role. The others are fine, though Vanessa Hudgens managed to feel a bit unrealistic at times even for a movie as intentionally unrealistic as this. The rest of the cast gets to have a bit of fun. Carla Gugino hams it up nicely as a Polish psychiatrist/choreographer. Oscar Isaac is entertaining as a slimy guard/night club owner. And Scott Glenn (who must have been cast because of his Training Day character) appears to be having fun as he spouts off nearly nonsensical philosophical one-liners throughout.

In a strange bit of casting, Jon Hamm shows up for just a short moment in the film. It seems strange because it’s not just a cameo. He was clearly edited out of the film. In an interview, Browning mentioned a cut sex scene with Hamm so it’s safe to assume that this was a ratings issue rather than a performance problem. There is most likely a director’s cut in store for Sucker Punch.

Sucker Punch is a male-influenced “female” fantasy film. The largely male geek population is likely to find plenty to enjoy with this one (though female geeks are likely to enjoy it as well). On its own, Sucker Punch is a frenzied action film with plenty of visual treats. It is light on character and might be downright offensive to some, but if you can apply that “It’s just a movie” attitude towards it, you should have plenty of fun with this one.

Random Thoughts (SPOILERS)

The visuals are fantastic and over the top, throughout. But I also really dug the style of the “reality” scenes because they have this grime all over them. Gives the film an interesting look and feel.

I loved the mix of 1950s style and modern music (or modern takes on old songs). My favorite sequence had to be the WWI battle set to a revamped version of Jefferson Airplane's "White Rabbit."

During my initial viewing, I thought it was odd how Baby Doll was just a shell of a character. It's saying something to refer to a character as a shell in this film, since so many of them are one-note as it is. The revelation at the end that Baby Doll was not really the hero of the story was interesting and explained away Browning's odd performance. It turns out that Baby Doll was literally just an object to aid in Sweet Pea's escape, so it makes sense that she is kind of barren in the personality department.

The film was surprisingly dark in the end. Watching the fantasy battle sequences there was never a sense of danger for the protagonists. It just felt like they were untouchable and that everything was going to be okay in the end. Kind of surprising when most of them started to get killed off. This actually made me like the film a bit more.

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