Sucker Punch (2011)
February 27, 2012
“Everyone has an angel. A guardian who watches over us. You can’t know what form they’ll take. One day old man. Next day, little girl. But don’t let appearances fool you, they can be as fierce as any dragon. Yet they’re not here to fight our battles, but to whisper from our heart; reminding that its us. Its every one of us who holds the power over the worlds we create.”
Synopsis: A young girl nicknamed Babydoll is unjustly locked away in an insane asylum where she will undergo a lobotomy in five days’ time. Facing gruesome odds but determined to escape, Babydoll imagines a fantastical dreamworld where she and her companions are warriors on a mission. The lines between reality and fantasy blur as Babydoll and her friends fight to retrieve five items they will need to break free from their captors before its too late.
Director Zack Snyder (300, Watchmen) is a master of aesthetic. From sets and dreamworlds to stylized costumes and makeup (highly sexualized, one should note) Sucker Punch is a visually stunning film. The five-minute opening sequence alone is a study in use of slow-motion camerawork and visual storytelling. Snyder’s directorial talent is unquestionably good in the aesthetic arena, but Sucker Punch falls flat on its face in plot exposition.
Let’s talk about the multiple layers of reality.
There’s a theatrical rule-of-thumb that essentially states “if you’re going to do something weird, you have to do it in the first 15 minutes.” You have 15 minutes to establish your premise, no matter how outlandish it is, and your audience will buy it. That’s why musicals always open with a song, they’re letting the audience know right-off-the-bat ‘Hey, this is a musical! People sing here and its totally normal!’ But if the play opened realistically and then 45 minutes later the cast burst into song and dance, the audience would feel that their willing suspension of disbelief had been betrayed. Simply, storytellers have to quickly establish the rules of their fictional world (this is referred to in Science Fiction writing as the “Novum”.) The more outlandish the premise, the more focused one’s opening 15 minutes must be (think about the introduction of movies like Star Wars, The Matrix, Underworld, Avatar, Inception, etc.)
So how does Sucker Punch hold up to this rule?
At 12 minutes in, the real world of the insane asylum is replaced by a brothel. Here each character is reintroduced in this fictional reality as gangsters, dancers, lost orphans, etc. This reality shift happens abruptly, without any explanation or motive, and left me thoroughly confused. After a few minutes of head scratching I concluded that this brothel was merely a sub-reality and the characters were actually still in the asylum, but the fact that the entire reality of existence switched so curtly and completely without exposition baffled me. Also, occurring a full 12 minutes in is really pushing their time limit.
As for the fantastical, action-packed, dream-world, this doesn’t appear until 21 minutes into the film. I initially let this slide because everyone saw the Sucker Punch trailer and knew an action-packed fantasy world was a major part of the movie. (But it disturbs me that a film relies on its theatrical trailer to accomplish good storytelling.) One of Sucker Punch’s major problems is failing to reconcile its dramatic brothel plot with its gratuitously violent dreamworlds.
There’s storytelling rules for a reason. They’re not meant to restrict would-be storytellers, but guide them. And for heaven’s sake – the more outlandish your premise, the more you must stick to the rules! This is clearly demonstrated by how confused audiences were and still are by Sucker Punch (“which world is real, are Babydoll and Sweetpea the same person, is Blue taking girls from the asylum to work in his brothel next-door”, etc.) If Zack Snyder wanted people to “get” his crazy, outlandish “genre-piece”, he should’ve stuck to the basic rules of storytelling! (For a positive example, think about the exposition used in Inception. Pretty much the first 2/3rds of the film is explaining how dreams work so that the last act can unfold in all its glory without leaving the audience behind.)
What is Sucker Punch even about, anyway?
I rarely need to watch a movie a second time in order to understand the plot. But it wasn’t until my 3rd time through Sucker Punch that I really got all the visual cues and understood what Zack Snyder was trying to do. (At least I think I do.) *spoilers* Babydoll is the ‘main character’ but its not her story, its Sweet Pea’s. The opening and closing narrations belong to Sweet Pea, and Babydoll admits to her at the end “this was never my story, its yours.” Babydoll was Sweet Pea’s guardian angel; the ‘little girl who fought as fierce as dragons’ and gave Sweet Pea the courage to escape. The action-packed fantasies belong to Babydoll, but the brothel reality belongs to Sweet Pea. – This switch-up is a cool idea and I see the puzzle pieces there for it, it just doesn’t come together to make one cohesive picture.
This isn’t too big of a surprise, considering Sucker Punch was an experiment in putting two entirely different genre’s into the same film. Zack Snyder even admitted to it: “How can I make a film that can have action sequences in it that aren’t limited by the physical realities that normal people are limited by, but still have the story make sense so it’s not, and I don’t mean to be mean, like a bulls–t thing like Ultraviolet or something like that.” Snyder basically wanted to recreate fights from The Matrix but skip the important bit about writing a physics defying universe that allows his plot to even take place. (Plot? *yawn* I mean, that’s so tedious!)
‘What lengths are we willing to go to in our mind to deal with a situation?’ In a place where women are powerless and abused, they’re encouraged to create a reality where they are in control. I like the message of empowerment and conquering your fears, but needing to reinvent reality to the point where you define the rules has some disturbing connotations.
The film is filled with skimpy costumes, ridiculous makeup, and an overall objectifying visual tone. This swords-and-corsets look is cool in a geeky, stylized, comicbook way, but its so sexual in nature. According to writer/director Zack Snyder, Sucker Punch is a critique on geek culture’s sexism and objectification of women (his interview here). While he certainly refrained from lingering or ogling shots, I don’t see any element of ‘critique’ here. If anything, it carries the disturbing implication that this shameless objectification of women somehow makes them stronger.
Sucker Punch tries to have a good message behind it all. Listen to the closing narration: “Who chains us, and who holds the key that can set us free? – Its you. You have all the weapons you need. Now fight.” This is a great message of empowerment and overcoming the obstacles we create for ourselves. Its asking us to examine the lies we tell ourselves that hold us back from reaching our full potential. But lets look at the story we just saw, shall we? Five women band together, and using their combined resources and creativity… three are dead, one is lobotomized, and only one escapes? That’s it? ‘You hold the key to your destiny, you are the only thing holding you back’ … but evil wins four out of five times? His ending totally undermines the point he’s trying to make!
Zack Snyder thinks he’s making a film about female empowerment in the face of helplessness, about creating realities where you are the hero and you have the weapons to accomplish anything. But everything about the movie from hackneyed plot to sexualized costumes unravels this until you’re standing there with two shreds in each hand wondering “…what is this movie even about?”
2.5 out of 5 Zipped Lips
Writer/Director Zack Snyder was trying something new with Sucker Punch; an experiment in putting two totally different genre’s into one storyline. While I applaud his attempt and awesome aesthetics, the film lacks a foundation in the basic rules of storytelling and ultimately undermines everything he’s trying to do.