Zack Snyder’s latest film, Sucker Punch, at first glance appears to be a culmination of everything the director has been fascinated with over the years. At its heart, it aspires to be the ultimate geek movie: there are sinister mental hospitals, blurred lines between reality and fantasy, robots, steam-powered zombie Germans, dragons, orcs, interstellar landscapes, and gun-toting girls in fetish gear. This gives the film a this-is-so-cool aesthetic, as if Snyder’s doodles from his 10th grade math notebook have come to life as a blockbuster. This is the film’s blessing and curse: like a doodle, it’s fun to look at, but the various parts are nothing more than a series of disconnected sketches that never add up.
The movie concerns the story of Baby Doll (Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events’ Emily Browning), who’s locked up in a mental hospital by her alcoholic stepfather after an unfortunate tragedy. The hospital’s caretaker, Blue (Oscar Isaac), runs a caberet/brothel out of the hospital with the patients as his girls, with the assistance of Dr. Gorski (Carla Gugino). It is here that Baby Doll meets Sweet Pea (Abbie Cornish), Rocket (Jena Malone), Blondie (Vanessa Hudgens), and Amber (Jamie Chung), who together conspire to break out of the hospital through a combination of theft and Baby Doll’s fantasy-driven, “raw” dancing that mesmerizes everyone.
If the plot didn’t make much sense in the previous paragraph, seeing it in action on the big screen only exacerbates the confusion. Snyder and co-writer Steve Shibuya spend very little time developing characters or creating any sense of coherency, instead opting to lay down information through exposition so that the big fantasy sequences can happen. And to the movie’s credit, those sequences are the best part, bursting with giddy thrills and exciting visuals (proven once again to be Snyder’s forte) that appeal directly to the inner nerd. In fact, in this respect the film seems to have been made exclusively for the Comic-Con set, an elaborate cosplay come to life, and no doubt that audience will find the film thrilling. Also to the film’s benefit is its excellent soundtrack, consisting of industrial covers of classic rock songs such as Jefferson Airplane’s “White Rabbit” or Eurythmics’ “Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This).” However, the characters are so paper-thin or grossly unlikable that it’s hard to make an attachment to any of them.
This point in particular brings up an aspect of the film that’s actually offensive, at least to me. In interviews and promotional material for the film, Snyder has said that his goal was to create a film about butt-kicking women that doesn’t objectify them, therefore providing a positive, almost-feminist message of women’s empowerment. If these were indeed Snyder’s intentions, he has failed miserably at translating them to the final product. The film is rife with misogyny, most of which I can’t give away without spoiling, and though Snyder’s camera never ogles the girls, he does more or less dress them in bondage gear for most of the film, and doesn’t bother to layer them with distinguished, deep personalities. Supposedly, the original title of Steig Larsson’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo translated into English as “men who hate women;” the same could be said about pretty much all of the male characters here. There's not a single redeemable male character here, as all of them are either thirsting to do leer and abuse women or inadvertently do so, despite questionably better attention. It takes the idea of "men-are-pigs" and takes it to the extreme; no doubt there may be some out there who agree with this point of view, but surely there could've been one other male character (apart from Scott Gleen's Miyagi-like Wise Man) that was interested in helping the girls. There’s no feminism or women’s empowerment to be seen here at all; if you’re looking for that kind of action film, I highly recommend Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill films, which obviously served as an inspiration to this film - just watch the first fantasy sequence and tell me some of the visual motifs there aren't strikingly similar to the Bride's showdown with O-Ren Ishii. (Another of Sucker Punch’s biggest sins: largely wasting the effortlessly talented Jon Hamm in the miniscule role of the High Roller.)
The film did force me into an unexpected philosophical problem, surprisingly. I as the screening rolled on, I became more and more disgusted at the sexism that runs rampant through the film. This is not uncommon for me; just about any given romantic comedy (but especially The Ugly Truth) can rouse this in me. However, the addition of the abhorrent misogyny drew my ire as well, and I've held it against the film ever since. Then a thought came to me: here I am, chastising one film for its brutal treatment of women, while I praise a film such as Antichrist or, to a much lesser extent, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo for the same reason. It's a contradictory opinion, and there are more than enough of those in film criticism. I eventually came up with a justification for this: there's nothing wrong with portraying this sort of thing on screen, Sucker Punch does so with a giant grin, letting it happen with a slapped-on punishment that doesn't really punish the men involved, and then has the gall to call it "women's empowerment." Antichrist was meant to be misogynistic and had no qualms about being so, with no feminist intents at all, while The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo does go overboard but is anchored by a strong, independent woman in Lisbeth Salander, a well-rounded and deeply layered character that makes you cheer when she gets her revenge. Sucker Punch misses this mark completely.
Sucker Punch strives very hard to be the ultimate “awesome!” movie, one that directly appeals to the pleasures of fantasy and hopes to be a cinematic daydream. Unfortunately, it’s a largely messy, undercooked, misogynistic exercise in filmmaking folly, a disappointing film that had the potential to be like nothing else. If nothing else, one thing is made certain: the film’s fantasy is far more appealing than its dreadful reality in every sense.
***I've written a shorter piece about the film for the online magazine dans la tete, which you can access through the link (it will take you to the February issue, which is the most recent at the time of publishing). Be sure to check out this great submission-based arts magazine!***