Film Review: Sucker Punch

by chubbywerewolf on 26 March 2011

Emily Browning and Carla Gugino in "Sucker Punch" Photo credit: Clay Enos (Warner Brothers Pictures)

There may not be another director in Hollywood whose status as a master of his craft is questioned as often or as vigilantly as Zack Snyder. In 2004, the Wisconsin native revived the floundering zombie genre with his intense remake of “Dawn of the Dead.” He followed it up with “300,” the visually-stunning adaptation of Frank Miller’s graphic novel that went on to gross $450 million worldwide.

Snyder’s 2009 adaptation of “Watchmen”—one of that year’s most anticipated films—received mixed reviews and fell short of box office expectations. But even its harshest critics applauded his ambition, and acknowledged that the source material (Alan Moore’s legendary graphic novel of the same name) would have been difficult for anyone to bring to the screen. His animated debut “Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga’Hoole” also received a mixed reaction by critics, but was largely ignored by moviegoers. So with Snyder—hailed by some as a visionary and others as a hack—named as the director of the upcoming “Superman” reboot, it goes without saying that all eyes are on “Sucker Punch,” his first movie based not adapted from existing source material.

Of course, the latter part of that sentence might be up for some debate. “Sucker Punch” may technically be an original work, but it borrows liberally and often from a slew of other movies. I’ll refrain from naming them (though you can rest assured that they number in the double digits), as doing so could give away some key plot points.

“Sucker Punch” features Emily Browning—probably best known to American audiences for her roles in “Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events” and the underrated (and set-in-Maine) horror thriller “The Uninvited”—as an unnamed girl who lands in Lennox House, a grim-looking mental institution (located in Vermont, no less) after fending off a sexual assault at the hands of her step-father (an event which leads to the accidental death of her younger sister). Dubbed “Baby Doll” upon her arrival by a sinister orderly named Blue (Oscar Isaac), we know that bad things are in store for her.

Before long, we learn that Blue is using the asylum as a front for a brothel, in which the girls are forced to work as dancers and prostitutes. Baby Doll (her virginity spared for the sake of an important customer called the “High Roller,” played by Jon Hamm) is told to dance for the clients. She does so reluctantly (though we never see it on screen, save for some awkward swaying), and finds that the men are so transfixed by her that they become virtually unaware of their surroundings.

The clients aren’t the only ones affected by the dancing. Baby Doll herself enters a trance-like state in which she becomes a lingerie-clad she-warrior. Meanwhile, the dark walls of Lennox House give way to fantastical worlds populated by demon samurai, killer robots, fire-breathing dragons, zombie Nazis and medieval warriors.

With the realization that her dancing might serve some greater purpose, Baby Doll hatches a plan to escape and enlists the help of four co-conspirators: Sweet Pea, Rocket, Amber and Blondie (played by Abbie Cornish, Jena Malone, Jamie Chung and Vanessa Hudgens, respectively). In order to succeed, the girls need to first round up a handful of objects, the quest for each being the subject of one of Baby Doll’s dance-induced fantasies.

Snyder has said in interviews that he initially imagined “Sucker Punch” as a commentary on show business. Watching the film, it is certainly easy to see how Baby Doll might be symbolic of Lindsay Lohan, Britney Spears, Miley Cyrus or any of the dozens of other young females who are objectified by the Hollywood machine as “sex symbols” when they are still teenagers.

Had Snyder followed through with his idea, “Sucker Punch” might have possessed some degree of intellectual depth to accompany its technical mastery. Instead, he provides us with a watered-down, overly simplistic view of exploitation that is as insulting to men as it is degrading to women. The film’s male characters are—almost without exception—leering, lecherous and full of bad intentions. Meanwhile, the role that women play in the showbiz exploitation dynamic is ignored almost completely. A tense scene in which Madam Gorski (Carla Gugino), the girls’ dance instructor—who doubles as a sort of Dina-Lohan’ish house mother—is reminded that she is as much a part of the problem as the men are, flirts with this idea, but retreats quickly.

What’s worse is that Snyder’s would-be commentary on exploitation is itself exploitative. Baby Doll (a name suggestive of adolescent innocence) spends most of the film attired in a perversion of a little girl’s sailor girl outfit that looks like it was tailored for a porn shoot. As she slices and shoots her way through hordes of enemy combatants, the camera repeatedly lingers near the hem of her tiny miniskirt or on her bare midriff. The wardrobes worn by Baby Doll’s female companions aren’t much better. Must of them are leather and lace outfits that look to be straight out of a fetish gear catalog. Its not the first time we’ve seen this type of sexualization on screen, but rarely does it involve such young women. To be fair, the actresses playing the girls range in age from 22 to 28, but the characters they play look more like 16 and 17 year-olds.

Snyder recently told Entertainment Weekly that the women in the film “take control of the sexual trappings foisted upon them, even turn them into weapons.” Maybe he really believes that. But for me, it just seems like an all-too-convenient excuse for the exploitative imagery. And not an original one, either. Filmmakers have been objectifying and humiliating women under pretense of feminist empowerment for decades now. (Remember “Basic Instinct?” Or “I Spit on Your Grave?”)

The visuals in “Sucker Punch” are astonishing, and while Snyder’s abilities as a storyteller in question, there’s no doubt that he’s a master of visual effects. That said, the action sequences quickly become repetitive and tiresome. There are only so many ways that a girl can shoot a zombie or slice through a robot before it gets boring. Ironically, the film’s best scene takes place during a dressing room confrontation and involves next-to-nothing along the way of CGI. There’s also a fun dance number that runs during the closing credits that is worth staying for.

Alas, a few nice visuals are not enough to overcome the film’s flaws. If you are 14 year-old boy, a CGI junkie, a megafan of the fantasy-action genre, or a pedophile, “Sucker Punch” might be worth the cost of a matinee ticket. For anyone else, its not worth seeing in theaters.

MY RATING: 2 MOONS (out of 5)

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Johnny Plumlee January 31, 2012 at 10:25 pm

A round of applause for your article.Much thanks again. Want more.

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