I’m grateful. Really, I am. It’s good to have a low water mark against which all else can be judged. It’s good to know that when a friend rags on a film that you can chip in and say, “Yeah, but at least it’s not…”
Let’s put it another way. We have our new Battlefield Earth.
Here be spoilers. Spoilers spoilers spoilers. Are we clear? (Also, spoilers.)
Let us consider Sucker Punch, and all the ways in which it fails. It is unrelentingly grim and humourless, and allows us no sense of empathy or identification with the characters. It’s episodic and painfully slow all at the same time, which is something of a feat. It flirts with the idea of female empowerment, while being misogynistic in the extreme. It’s a film without a heart, a brain, or a soul.
Start at the beginning, I guess. This is where director Zac Snyder excels. He does, to my mind, the best title sequences in the business. He nailed the alternative universe of Watchmen in a single short blast of newsreel. He brought the zombie apocalypse of Dawn Of The Dead alive before the titles smeared across the screen. In three minute bursts, Snyder can be unbeatable. The first three minutes of Sucker Punch are equally impressive. There are short bursts of the invention and excitement that we saw in his earlier movies throughout Sucker Punch. But that’s all they are.
That’s problem one with Sucker Punch. It’s segmented, compartmentalised. It runs on games logic. You get a cool-looking fantasy level, then you have to sit through a boring cut scene. Over and over again. My heart sank when I realised that the narrative spine of the piece is a four part object quest and we would have to grind through each one in turn. The structure of the film fell into place after the main character crossed off the first item on her her list, and stretched away into the far distance. It’s as if Snyder and his co-writer came up with a ton of ideas for fight sequences, and then realised that they needed a story to string them all together.
Let’s talk a little about the plot, the thinnest of wires from which to hang the storyboards. It concerns a girl, Baby Doll, who never gets an identity apart from that stripper’s nom de plume. She dresses in otaku-style schoolgirl garb and has her hair in pigtails, just in case the name wasn’t a clear enough signifier. This is the level of metaphor you can expect from the film.
Baby Doll accidentally kills her sister while trying to protect her from her brutish, murderous step-father. The villain of the piece, he is intent on covering up his crime. He has her committed. There are games being played with fairy tale tropes here, a single moment of sophistication in a plot that otherwise fumbles the symbolism. The innocent, stricken princess, cursed and abandoned to a cruel and uncertain fate by an evil step-parent. The girl is trapped, doomed. She is sent to a lunatic asylum, and lobotomised.
That, basically, is the story. There is no escape for Baby Doll. A needle is hammered into her brain and everything she is and was is skewered and destroyed. The middle two hours of the film describe what happens to her in the split second before the needle is driven home.
Baby Doll is told before she goes into the chair that there is a way to escape – through the power of imagination. So as the spike falls, she whisks herself away. To an even worse place. A bordello, where she becomes a feature attraction, a dancer who is being set up to “entertain” a high-spending customer. When she dances, she escapes again, to a world of myth and combat where she is put on a quest by Scott Glenn, who is clearly only there because David Carradine was dangling in a closet.
This combat world is the point of the film. It’s where most of the trailers and adverts are set. It’s the reason most people will go to see it. In story terms, it’s simply a distraction so that her friends can steal the objects they need to escape their imaginary fate. It’s the place where she can go to set up the escape out of her escape.
In the combat world, Baby Doll is a skilled warrior, able to dance on the blades of swords wielded by giant samurai, defeat dragons, fight off hordes of clockwork Nazi zombies. Which sounds like fun, but the end result is simply boring. Baby Doll and her friends go through the same fight with different villains and backdrops. It’s like Groundhog Day for sugared up tweens.
In this world, combat is a bloodless affair, filled with imagery cribbed from manga and games. Baby Doll’s foes gout light or steam as they are defeated. They are inhuman obstacles rather than proper threats. Baby Doll fights with the same blank expression that she wears through the whole film. Emily Browning sleepwalks through the film, numb and quiescent even when she’s slicing robots into ribbons of wiring. It doesn’t help you connect or empathise with her fate, even when it becomes clear that events in the combat world do have repercussions in the bordello.
Sucker Punch has a frankly bizarre take on female empowerment. Baby Doll and her friends fight with ninja-level skill in the combat world, blasting away at enemy hordes with automatic weapons while wearing stripper costumes. The camera is frequently at knee level or below. I’ve never seen so many upskirt shots in a 12A movie. They are briefed and directed by Scott Glenn, the Charlie to their Angels. Back in the bordello world, they are indentured slaves, subject to every whim of the brutal boss that owns them, and callously shoots two of the five in the back of the head for daring to plot against him. If this is female empowerment, then I’m a schoolgirl.
Sucker Punch is a film that fills me with questions, and leaves my head reeling. Not, I stress, in a good way. I could write about it for days, and there would still be more to hate. But I’m saving my most choice bucket of bile to sling over the ending.
The climax of the film is a blatant about-face from everything that has gone before. This, I guess, is the sucker punch of the title, a cynical ploy that invalidates the rest of the storyin one blow. The film is bad enough before this point, clumsy, ugly and charmless. The revelation of the last object in Baby Doll’s quest is a smack in the face, but one that has no reason, no point. It’s schoolboy nihilism, a dark ending that makes no sense.
Sucker Punch is being sold as a fun thrill ride, a Friday night out. It’s not. It’s grim, relentlessly dour, cruelly exploitative. It treats the women it claims to empower with the same disregard as the clockwork Nazis and robots that fall away under automatic gunfire. There were no smiles when the lights went up at the preview screening I attended. The audience looked dumbfounded. Many walked out shaking their heads. If you’re planning on seeing this film under the impression that it’s a fun action movie with some crazy manga imagery, you will be deeply disappointed.
I wish that I had a way to escape this film. I have a nasty feeling that it’ll take a needle to the brain to do the job.