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Sucker Punch

Reviewed By Mel Valentin
Posted 03/25/11 00:00:19

"A riot of light, color, and sound, ultimately signifying nothing."
2 stars (Pretty Crappy)

In less than a decade, Zack Snyder’s filmmaking career includes "Dawn of the Dead," a remake of George. A. Romero's 1978 survival-horror film, "300" and "Watchmen, " two comic-book adaptations (the first far more successful than the second), ("Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga'Hoole," a computer-animated adaptation of a children’s book (a box-office, if not critical, disappointment), and now, before taking on the "Superman" franchise (with Christopher Nolan’s seal of approval), and now "Sucker Punch," a sci-fi/fantasy action film Snyder co-wrote with Steve Shibuya. Snyder has described "Sucker Punch" as "Alice in Wonderland" with machine guns.” "Sucker Punch" mashes up ‘50s noir, revenge/female empowerment melodrama, "Matrix"-inspired science fiction, Tolkien-style fantasy, Steampunk, samurai films, videogames, comic books, manga/anime, and fetish porn. In other words, a film made by and for fanboys (and one or two fangirls).

Sucker Punch operates on three levels or realities. In the first, hyper-stylized reality (circa ‘50s Vermont), Baby Doll (Emily Browning), despondent after the loss of her mother, confronts her abusive, controlling stepfather (Gerard Plunkett), on a dark and stormy night (the first of countless visual clichés). A tragedy involving Baby Doll's younger sister leads to Baby Doll's involuntarily commitment at the Lennox House for the Mentally Insane. Dr. Vera Gorski (Carla Gugino), an Eastern European-born psychiatrist, ostensibly runs the asylum, but it's really head orderly, Blue Jones (Oscar Isaac), who holds the reins of power over the asylum's all-female patients. For two thousand dollars, Blue agrees to forge the Gorski's signature on the documents necessary to authorize Baby Doll's lobotomy. The asylum's lobotomist (Jon Hamm), however, is currently elsewhere, giving Baby Doll a five-day reprieve before he permanently erases her memories and, with them, her personality and individuality.

In response, Baby Doll retreats into a fantasy world, a nightclub-brothel owned by Blue. Blue's nightclub caters to the city’s political and economic elites’ hedonistic pleasures. Blue keeps his performers as virtual prisoners, forcing them to double as prostitutes. Gorski trains the dancers in burlesque, including new arrival Baby Doll. Almost immediately, Baby Doll convinces Sweet Pea (Abbie Cornish), Sweet Pea's younger sister, Rocket (Jena Malone), Blondie (Vanessa Hudgens), and Amber (Jamie Chung), mental patients in the first, objective reality, dancers in the second-level reality, to join her before Blue hands Baby Doll over to the High Roller (Hamm again) for unspecified purposes.

Baby Doll slips into a third level, a CG/videogame-inspired reality when she dances (Snyder avoids additional titillation by leaving her actual dance moves to our respective imaginations). In this new, embedded reality, Baby Doll turns into a videogame warrior, capable of leaping giant samurais in one bound, effortlessly wielding a samurai sword and machine guns. A character described only as the Wise Man (Scott Glenn, in a thankless role) in the credits steps in to (a) give exposition and (b) lay the ground rules for Baby Doll’s simplistic, object-oriented quest. In the first level (Mega-Samurai World™), Baby Doll takes on gigantic, red-eyed samurai. In the second level (Steampunk War World™), Sweet Pea, Rocket, Blondie, and Amber join her to take down World War I-era German soldiers-turned--steampunk-zombies. Baby Doll returns two more times to the third-level reality, once to the Lord of the Rings-inspired Mordor World™, and last, to a futuristic iRobot World™. Not a single third-reality level, however, resembles anything Baby Doll would (or even could) imagine given her age, gender, or the time period. Nor does any of it matter in the second or, more importantly, first level of reality. Considering Snyder's disinterest in internal logic or coherence, that's not surprising. Snyder's interested in overwhelming and/or bludgeoning moviegoers with all the CG toys a reported $85-million production budget can buy (a figure that doesn't include prints and advertising).

Snyder doesn't return to the first-level reality until the closing scenes (unlike, for example, Inception's multiple, interwoven dream-levels) and only then to resolve Baby Doll's fate (i.e., Will she or won't she get a lobotomy?). Snyder handling of her fate (readers can find a clue in online interviews, but it’ll remain unspoiled here) is just one, among many, indications of Snyder’s lack of story-based imagination. Outfitted in bustiers, spandex, leather, and heels in the nested realities, the female characters are nothing more than fetish objects meant to arouse the libidos of fourteen-year old boys (and the men who think like them). Snyder and his co-screenwriter, Steve Shibuya, saddle Baby Doll and the others (they’re never given proper names) with wince inducing dialogue, saving the worst for Scott Glenn’s aphorism-obsessed Wise Man character (who’s anything but).

Snyder has never been a story- and character-first kind of filmmaker. Snyder’s career as a filmmaker (don’t call him an auteur) has been defined by visual excess. Snyder’s doesn’t do (or possibly, understand) subtlety. Snyder firmly believes in the “more is more” theory of filmmaking. An intensely visual stylist, he’s more concerned with production design, visual composition (lighting, camera movement, etc.), and post-production (most of Sucker Punch was filmed in front of green screens). That’s not surprising, given Snyder’s background in directing music videos before he began directing feature-length films. Snyder shoots multiple scenes, including the extended battle scenes inside the third-level reality, as music videos or videogame cut scenes, dropping dialogue for remixed rock songs (obvious choices all), using slow motion and speed-ramping (a Snyder specialty) to overwhelm moviegoers with sensory input, something he does repeatedly.

Ultimately, "Sucker Punch" is nothing more (or less) than two-hour music video a videogame you can’t play (in this case Snyder plays and we don't). Videogames are designed for interactivity, for playing, alone or in groups. You can, of course, watch someone else play, but it's rarely, if ever, satisfying even on a basic (i.e., visual/aural) level. You can’t “play” a character in a film, but you can sympathize, empathize, and identify with those characters. You can, one step removed, participate in their emotional lives and, sometimes, their inner lives too. That’s where "Sucker Punch" fails and fails badly. It’s a triumph of spectacle over story, of surface over substance. It’s also the film, presumably in conjunction Snyder’s earlier comic-book adaptations, "300" and "Watchmen," that convinced Christopher Nolan, acting as Warner Bros. go-to producer for DC comic-book properties, to tap Snyder to direct the "Superman" reboot.

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