Movie Review: Sucker Punch
By Matthew Huntley
April 5, 2011
Sucker Punch would have made a great video game. If I was 12-years-old, I’d be thinking this game has it all: babes with weapons, cool locations and awesome fight scenes. It reminded why video games can be so fun to play in the first place - they’re interactive, they’re challenging and they provide users with a sense of accomplishment. Those are the types of feelings you get playing a video game. They are not, however, the types of feelings you get watching someone else play a video game, which is mostly how Sucker Punch functions as a movie.
This is an action fantasy, but the problem is it always feels like someone else’s. At no point does the movie invite us in to connect with the story or characters and make us feel like we’re a part of them. Perhaps this is why whole experience seemed so insignificant.
Given its look and design, I was almost certain Sucker Punch was based on a graphic novel. The director, Zack Snyder, is no stranger to such adaptations after helming 300 and Watchmen. But about a third of the way through, it became more apparent this one didn’t have as strong a narrative at its core. This is an original screenplay that Snyder co-wrote with Steve Shibuya and they’ve basically generated a limp, derivative story that’s mostly a clothesline on which to hang lots of effects and action, neither of which make a whole lot of sense or are terribly exciting. Snyder seems to have taken his own love of action, video games and scantily-dressed women and rolled them up into one big cluster of cinematic ostentation. This is a Zack Snyder movie made mostly for Zack Snyder.
The plot centers on a 20-year-old heroine (Emily Browning) who accidentally shoots her little sister while trying to fend off their evil stepfather. Blonde and pig-tailed, she’s committed to a mental hospital and the stepfather makes a deal with a sadistic orderly (Oscar Isaac) to make sure she’s lobotomized (the movie takes place in the 1950s, so the lobotomy will be performed the old-fashioned way with a hammer and a pick).
From here, the movie takes a rather nebulous turn and the mental hospital milieu is suddenly replaced by a burlesque club, where the heroine, given the name Baby Doll, is a dancer and forced to serve the male clientele. I understand the burlesque metaphor, but it’s not exactly clear why the movie switches over to it. Perhaps Snyder thought this would serve the same function for Baby Doll as Oz did for Dorothy.
Baby Doll befriends the other dancers/patients: Rocket (Jena Malone); her older sister, Sweet Pea (Abbie Cornish); Blondie (Vanessa Hudgens); and Amber (Jamie Chung). They and Dr. Gorski (Carla Gugino with a Russian accent) discover Baby Doll has a gift when it comes to dancing: she’s so good it puts her audience in a trance. Funny how we never actually see Baby Doll perform any moves. To us, when she dances, she enters yet another world, which looks like it’s made up of levels from fighting and first-person shooter games. In this world, she’s instructed by Wise Man (Scott Glenn) and told about the five things she’ll need to escape and attain freedom: a map, a knife, a key, fire and one other thing, which remains a mystery until the end.
The bewildered state Baby Doll puts her audience in becomes the means by which she and the other girls obtain the essential items. They enter environments that range from feudal Japan to World War II Germany, fighting giant samurais and masked Nazis, although the locations and villains don’t have as much narrative purpose as they do visual flare.
Amidst all its action and chaos, there was never a point in Sucker Punch when I cared about the girls’ journey. That’s because the movie’s sensation takes precedence over the characters, and although the actresses are sympathetic, especially Browning and Malone, I never identified with them or their burden. The movie’s exaggerated style looms over every shot and none of it felt real. We care about the characters in this movie about as much as the characters in a video game, and like those in a video game, they merely look good and are at the mercy of the action sequences.
For all the reasons I’ve just described, some people are going to say Sucker Punch is a terrible movie. It is not. It’s simply a misfire that has no significant value. Zack Snyder has a definite style but his writing and ideas aren’t substantive enough for him to be penning his own projects. He’s a director who starts with effects and works his way down to the characters, but as a filmmaker, he should know the best and most memorable stories start with the characters first. Style and effects should only be added as supplements later on. Plus, they should serve a purpose, a concept Sucker Punch doesn’t know a whole lot about.