Picture the scene: self and Paula settle down to watch ‘Sucker Punch’ (because nothing says “classy dude” like making your wife sit through a film predicated on fantasy sequences featuring a quintet of attractive twenty-somethings in mini-skirts) and the following exchange occurs:
Paula: So what’s this movie about?
Me: It’s a kind of layers-of-reality thing. Like ‘Inception’.
Fast forward 105 minutes:
Paula: So what the hell was that movie about?
Me: Buggered if I know.
And sitting down a few days later to write about ‘Sucker Punch’ – which, for all its flaws, has managed to lodge itself in the back of my mind in a way I can only describe as niggling – I’m buggered if I know how to approach it, where to start, whether to put the scalpel of my critical faculties to use and deconstruct all the ways it doesn’t work, or try to pin down why/how it’s managed to get under my skin in a way I almost wish it hadn’t.
Even the tried and trusted let’s-start-with-a-plot-synopsis approach seems redundant. ‘Sucker Punch’ is the kind of movie that dares you to sketch out a plot synopsis. You can, but you’ll soon find yourself wallowing in a gratuitous amount of incidental detail to try to explain exactly why a baby dragon with two crystals in its throat is so important to stealing a cigarette lighter from a fat guy and why that in turn is essential in an escape attempt from a brothel that’s doubling up for an asylum. Or is a representation of it. Or vice versa.
This leads you into a discussion of the brothel as one of the most sexless dens of inquity modern cinema has given us. Short of ‘Showgirls’, I can’t remember a film so packed with nubile young women that managed to be so unerotic. ‘Showgirls’ remains the worst offender, though, since it managed to make female nudity uninteresting. I am still at a loss as to how Paul Verhoeven achieved this.
I am also still at a loss as to how to approach ‘Sucker Punch’. I can’t even blame my stupefaction on unrealistic expectations of the movie (although, to be fair, you only need to glance at the poster and think “hmmmm, Emily Browning, Abbie Cornish, Jamie Chung, Jena Malone and Vanessa Hudgens in the same movie modelling a nice line in sailors suits, I’ll have some of that, thank you very much” in order to cultivate unrealistic expectations) since I went into ‘Sucker Punch’ expecting an incoherent mishmash at best and a train-wreck at worst.
But I guess what was was expecting, at the heart of either the mishmash or the mangled remains of carriages and locomotive, was an exuberant and unapologetically cheesy action-fest. This, after all, was a movie I had it on good authority as containing a major set-piece featuring clockwork and steam-powered Germans circa First World War getting their trench-dwelling asses whupped by our foxy fivesome. A movie that featured samurai elements, sword and sorcery elements, sci-fi elements and feminist elements. That huge tranches of it take place in an alternative reality was a foregone conclusion this feminism certainly doesn’t equate to girls ‘n’ guns posturing in this reality. Certainly not when the girls have names like Baby Doll, Sweet Pea and Blondie. I’m guessing Germaine Greer’s services were not engaged during rewrites.
I was, in short, expecting a lightweight piece of fluff. Something fun. Surely it’s not possible to shove ‘Inception’, ‘Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon’, ‘Lord of the Rings’, ‘Hellboy’, ‘D.E.B.S.’ and ‘Cabaret’ in the blender (along with a train full of killer robots) and come out with a movie that’s anything less than big dumb fun. Surely?
Zack Snyder manages it. How? He also shoves ‘One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest’ and ‘Through a Glass Darkly’ into the blender. He puts in bigger spoonfuls of these ingredients than any of the others. He plays out the big action scenes in the shadow of institutional miserablism. He depicts the burlesque atmosphere of the brothel in the shadow of the asylum. The threat of sexual violence hangs over his heroines in both realities. The only time they’re not in danger of being raped is when they’re battling steampunk Germans or gleaming robots – none of whom, I’m guessing, are packing a penis anyway.
(After I thought about ‘Sucker Punch’ for longer than necessary – and I guess I’d better throw up a SPOILER alert here, even though this is pure supposition – I came to the conclusion that the brothel is the top layered of reality, the asylum is how Sweet Pea has come to think of it, and ostensible main character Baby Doll is actually a figment of Sweet Pea’s imagination, an alter ego the introduction of whom into her fantasy world gives her the impetus to make an escape attempt. Please feel free to debate this theory in the comments section. SPOILERS/ABJECT GUESSWORK end.)
Maybe that’s why Snyder called it ‘Sucker Punch’ in the first place. It’s a movie that seems to promise a specific set of tropes, a certain vibe, a fanboy aesthetic of kick-ass action heroines and OTT spectacle – and to some degree lets you think you’re getting it – but continually challenges you with its unremitting returns to a milieu of incarceration, threat and depersonalization. Which denies you the payoff you want.
All told, short of painting his bizarro vision in the visceral palette of an R rating, Snyder seems to have made exactly the movie he wanted to with zero thought spared for commercialism, audience satisfaction or critical response. ‘Sucker Punch’ is a balls-to-the-wall exegesis of big-budget auteurism. And it frustrates the hell out of me that I’m unable to wholeheartedly embrace it the way I want to.