It seems that every time a hot new director comes on the scene and has some success, there will be a time when critics will turn and a backlash will begin. For Zack Snyder, who had some success with Dawn of the Dead, 300 and Watchmen, it came with his fourth film. This was the first film that Snyder came up with the story himself and was not an adaptation of some other material. That tinny sound you could hear back in late March? that was critics sharpening their knives. Whatever your opinion of the final product, its fair to say that Sucker Punch didn’t deserve the critical and commercial mauling it got and now it's out on home video, it deserves a second look.
The film begins quietly in a dark fairytale like fashion with Baby Doll (Emily Browning) clashing with her violent step father after her mother dies. She defends herself against this brutal man and accidentally kills her sister in the process. Her step father has her committed to an insane asylum and does a deal with a corrupt orderly named Blue (Oscar Isaac) so that she bypasses traditional care and is placed at the front of the queue to receive a lobotomy. This is where a break with reality occurs and we descend into Baby Doll’s mind for the second level of reality in the film. Baby Doll imagines the hospital to be a high class brothel where the inmates are prostitutes imprisoned against their will, working for Blue (who is now a gangster and pimp) and cared for by dance choreographer/madam/therapist Madam Gorski (Carla Gugino). Baby Doll is told she has a date in a week with the ‘high roller’ a rich man who will come into the establishment to pay top dollar to take Baby Doll’s virginity. Meanwhile she bonds with fellow inmates Sweet Pea (Abby Cornish) Rocket (Jena Malone) Blondie (Vanessa Hudgens) and Amber (Jamie Chung). Baby Doll is found to have a major talent for provocative dancing and it is during these sequences that a third level of reality is involved. In these sequences Baby Doll is spoken to by a wise sage like figure (Scott Glenn) who lets her know that in order to escape her fate she must retrieve five items. Back in the brothel Baby Doll convinces the others to join her in an escape attempt by getting the five items they will need. Each mission they go on takes place both in the brothel and in Baby Doll’s mind involving dragons, robots, clockwork zombie soldiers and gigantic angry samurai’s.
On first viewing Sucker Punch seems like its all style and no substance and truthfully is a bit of a disappointment. On subsequent viewing, knowing how the whole thing turns out you are able to pick up on things not noticed on first viewing. There are lines of dialogue and certain locations that take on extra meaning the more you watch and as things unfold you start to see what Zack Snyder and his co-writer Steve Shibuya were actually going for. When you have this realisation the film takes on a whole other emotional core that the surface flash and bangs detract from initially. It’s not a film where the meaning is there slapping you upside the head, but subtext about the plight of women and their objectification is there if you are prepared to look for it. It’s no coincidence that this film is set in the 1960s, right before the women’s liberation movement, where it’s more than likely that headstrong females who spoke out were carted off to the asylum by emasculated men. Snyder could have developed this subtle dig at male chauvinism a bit, so that more people got it and your casual viewer wasn’t scratching their head. Having said that he has done us a service by letting us figure things out for ourselves, a luxury all too rare in your modern blockbuster. It’s a daring move to pitch an 82 million dollar movie with huge special effects which is basically a massive finger wagging at the male audience and the collective guilt we should feel around the everyday viewing of women as nothing more than figures of lust, particularly in works of fantasy. Like I said the film has subtext it’s just not glaringly obvious first time around. It’s impossible to talk more about the subject matter and themes without leading heavily into spoiler territory but the film is definitely one that should provoke conversation about what the purpose of women is in works of fantasy. Have we really changed as a society? Is Lara Croft really a symbol of girl power? Or is it just perpetuating an age old cycle with her short shorts and ample chest? Baby Doll imagines an escape where she and her cohorts are dressed skimpily in almost fetish gear. Is this because this is her view of how powerful females should be dressed? There are no easy answers but much food for thought.
Like in his previous films, Zack Snyder pulls off the action sequences with aplomb and proves he is one of the best action directors working today. Each fantasy sequence is breathtakingly beautiful to behold. From a speeding train on a distant planet to a castle filled with marauding orc armies to a Japanese garden with lashings of snow. Each sequence is brilliant and executed perfectly without the heavy CGI or green screen work being obvious or intrusive. Snyder also gives each fantasy sequence a signature song reworked so it fits the overall mood and the scene it soundtracks. Considering the subject matter it’s a wonder that so much attention and craft was poured into this film by a major studio. The film is so beautiful to look at that it’s the kind of thing that would look great projected on to the wall of a trendy nightclub.
The acting by the female leads is great if not incredible. Especially impressive are Abbie Cornish and Jena Malone as sisters (or are they?) who have an attachment and a lot invested in Baby Doll’s escape plans. Carla Gugino is also very good in her dual role as shrink and madam and the guy playing Blue; Oscar Isaacson is not an actor I’m familiar with but he does a great job of playing a slimy pimp no matter which level of reality he is operating on. The film in its extended version is the version to see. It reinstates the much discussed musical number as well as extended action sequences and a final moving sequence which adds to the emotional impact of the film's epilogue. The theatrical version felt a bit slight and the scenes added flesh it out perfectly.
If you have seen this once and dismissed it, see it again. If you have paid attention to all the negativity without giving the film as chance, then forget that and watch this movie as soon as you can. Love it or hate it, you can’t deny it has ambition. It’s called Sucker Punch for a reason.
Extras: Maximum movie mode (blu-ray only) featuring picture in picture commentary, storyboards and interactive galleries, Original animated prequel shorts, Sucker Punch – behind the soundtrack featurette.
Sucker Punch is out now on DVD/Blu-ray