Zack Snyder has developed a reputation known for his film adaptations of comic books that are as visually striking and unsubtle as neon pink jackhammers. Sucker Punch is the most “Snyderian” film to date, having been directed, produced and co-written by the 45-year old comic auteur. So grab some popcorn, turn up your eyeballs and check your brain at the door.
The film follows a young girl, played by Emily Browning, who is sent to an insane asylum after her mother dies and her evil stepfather murders her sister, framing her in the process. This cheery opening is conveyed through what feels like a cross between a moving comic book and a slow motion music video, with a voice-over musing about guardian angels in the background. The girl arrives at the asylum wide-eyed and catatonic, and she is ushered into a room called “The Theatre” where patients act out their trauma on a dilapidated stage, under the care of Dr. Vera Gorsky, played by Carla Gugino. Isaac Blue, the sleazy administrator played by Oscar Isaac, strikes a deal with the evil step-dad to have our heroine lobotomized in three days. We flash forward to the operation, but just before the doctor can do the deed, the scene becomes an act in a stylish burlesque/brothel that bears a striking resemblance to the asylum’s theatre.
Here we are introduced to Sweet Pea, played by Abbie Cornish, the haughty star-performer and queen bee of the brothel, and her friendly sister Rocket, played by Jena Malone. Sweet Pea dismisses our heroine, but Rocket shows her around and gives her a name: Baby Doll. In this other world, Vera is a stern dance mistress and Blue is the pimp and proprietor of the club. Baby has a hard time fitting in with the other girls until Vera insists that she dance. Everybody who watches her is rapt by her performance, but the audience never sees her do so much as shake her hips. Instead, we watch her dream. Baby appears in a snowy pagoda in her dream, where she encounters a wise old man played by Scott Glenn. The wise man tasks her with finding the five items that will lead to her freedom and arms her with an ornate katana and a matching handgun adorned with adorable little cellphone charms. This first fight is where the movie really hits its stride. Snyder has thankfully backed away from the wanton brutality of Watchman and returned to the poetic rhythm and subtle abstraction that made 300’s fight scenes so stunning. However, the tone is lighter here.
After finishing her trance, Baby recruits the other girls to her cause, promising to distract the guards with her hypnotic performances while they pilfer the items on her freedom check-list. Throughout all of the subsequent dance-trances, Baby is joined by Sweet Pea, Rocket and their friends Blondie and Amber. Each girl is armed to the teeth and dressed in fetish-fueling battle armor. Each skirmish is prefaced by an appearance from the Wise Man, who gives the girls their mission objectives and a few words of wisdom that sound like fortune cookies written by Duke Nukem. The first group-sortie, where the girls lay waste to legions of steam-punk Nazi zombies and battle zeppelins with a hulking battle-mech, is the cleverest of these surreal dream battles and the highpoint of the film.
Unfortunately, the exchanges between fights are two-dimensional, artificial and excruciatingly predictable. Blue comes off as petty and annoying rather than a genuinely menacing villain, and the girls are literally names with pretty faces and single-adjective personalities. It is a shame because the premise of using performance and imagination to do metaphorical battles with one’s personal-demons is full of promise for characterization. This could have been a genuinely smart movie in addition to being beautiful. The plot and the characters’ personalities are stunted by the brothel frame narrative, however. Instead of grappling with the duality between the dream battles and grim reality of the asylum, Snyder situates the story in this overly sexualized middle-world that serves as a pretext to put the girls in underwear for most of the film.
As Sweet Pea remarks after watching Baby Doll perform for the first time, “the dance should be more than just titillation.” Then again, it may be best to stick with what you know. Snyder’s attempt at a solemn conclusion is the cruelest cut of all. A wretchedly bleak final act sucks all the fun out of the film, and the ending completely undercuts the film’s call for self-empowerment and survival at all costs.
Sucker Punch is worth watching for its eye candy alone, especially if you are fond of science fiction, action movies or Japanese anime. In fact, it deserves special praise for being the most successful live-action translation of anime aesthetics to have come out of Hollywood thus far. But if you have not enjoyed Snyder’s comic adaptations, his Baby Doll will not do much to change your mind.