During the marketing barrage for ‘300‘ and ‘Watchmen‘ director Zack Snyder’s new film, the good folks at Warner Bros. have never been able to illuminate one thing: What exactly is ‘Sucker Punch’? From the cobbled together teaser spots and posters, it looks like some kind of bold mishmash of genres. Is it a sci-fi epic? A medieval fantasy film? Or is it a dream world riff a la ‘Inception‘? To tell you the truth, even after seeing the movie, I’m still not entirely sure.
The film opens with red curtains parting to reveal the Warner Bros. logo, one of a number of left-field nods to Baz Luhrmann’s ‘Moulin Rouge!‘ (Yes, seriously.) We get a wordless tableau to set up our story – a young girl (Emily Browning) has lost her mother, and her abusive stepfather is coming after her. In the scuffle that follows, the girl accidentally murders her younger sister (“melodramatic” doesn’t quite cover it) and is sent away to a mental institution populated, apparently, by comely young lasses.
The girls band together and, for some reason, drift into a fantasy world that’s pretty much the same place/time as reality (mid-’50s), but the nut house is swapped out for a bordello/crime den. (Why there’s this extra layer of delusion is one of the things I’m still puzzling over, because it’s wholly unnecessary and only gums up the plot in profound ways.) So from the bordello universe, as we’ll call it, the girls slip into even more vividly realized worlds, where they’re an elite fighting force who battle things like dragons, mechanized WWI German soldiers, and killer robots. Just explaining this is exhausting; you can imagine what it’s like to watch it.
The fantasy sequences are structured around interpolated versions of pop songs (like The Stooges’ “Search and Destroy” and Bjork’s “Army of Me”), which is sort of cool. But like the action sequences themselves, this gets old and repetitive incredibly quickly. In fact, for all the millions of dollars spent on realizing these grandiose visions, there’s very little in the way of pop, pizzazz, or actual awe-shucks wonderment. The sequences feel labored and trite, with little in the way of imagination or excitement. It’s like watching someone else play a (not all that interesting) videogame.
And so it goes. The girls are tasked by a 1,000-year-old Scott Glenn to get a series of items, and have to periodically slip into these fantasy worlds. We get three layers of banal melodrama that Snyder artlessly cuts between. Yay. What’s even more infuriating is that the movie engages in some pretty questionable gender stuff. For instance, in their fantasy realms, the girls look like some pervert’s wet dream – all pushed-up breasts and knee socks. But the girls are supposedly playing inside a world of their own creation. Who, exactly, are they trying to titillate? (Lesbianism is totally off the table. This is a PG-13 rated movie. Lesbians don’t exist until you’re 17.) Additionally, they have to fetch and interact with objects that have strong phallic symbolism attached to them (missiles, swords, cigars), but there’s no indication, even in passing, that Snyder is aware of the connection. Or maybe he just doesn’t care.
Perhaps I’m looking too deeply into a movie that’s pretty easy to hate superficially. ‘Sucker Punch’ is one of the worst big budget movies I’ve seen in quite some time. It’s a hazy, glittery train wreck in which everything is positioned just so, but for all its manicured posing and cutting edge visual effects, it can’t elicit an emotion much stronger than “Huh, that was sort of neat.”