So me and the brothers went and caught a Sunday night screening of Zach Snyder’s latest movie, Sucker Punch. (Is it Sucker Punch or SuckerPunch? I’m not sure). Another thing I’m not too sure of is what the title has to do with the movie it preceded. What was the sucker punch?
The point is that you’re going to hear a lot from people about how much of a jumbled mess this movie is. Given the structure of the story – one of fantasy world created by a girl in an insane asylum in which she is a dancer/prostitute-in-waiting who dreams of other, more outlandish fantasy worlds where she and the girls of the brothel she lives in are a crack commando unit – it’s not a surprise.
Let me restate that for clarification purposes. This movie is about a girl in a brutal mental hospital who retreats into her mind and builds a brutal brothel where she and the other patients are dancers/hookers and the hospital staff are the cruel pimps and guards. In order to escape from this brothel, she needs various items and the obtaining of these items is experienced through her third level of fantasies – the much-advertised action sequences where she is a mighty warrior leading the other girls into battle against giant samurai warriors, steampunk German zombies, metallic drone soldiers and a giant freakin’ dragon.
This kind of movie is a very difficult balancing act. They require a steady and strong hand that can guide an audience through its convoluted maze without either spoonfeeding them the story or abandoning them at the first turn. When done right, you get movies like Pan’s Labyrinth or Inception. Unfortunately, this wasn’t done right.
We find out that Babydoll (our protagonist) is a recently orphaned young woman who has been left in the care of a disgusting man who is after the inheritance her mother left her and her sister. The stepfather, as most stepfathers would do in a fairy tale like this, tries to rape her and her younger sister and somehow the younger sibling ends up dead. Whether Babydoll did it or whether the stepfather did it, we are never told. Somehow the stepfather finds a way around the authorities and throws her into a stereotypically ugly-looking insane asylum. Here he pays an orderly named Blue to forge doctor’s orders and schedules her for a lobotomy. As the lobotomy happens, we get our cut into the fantasy of the bordello, where Babydoll is the newest girl and the prize of the bordello’s owner and pimp, Blue. And here we come to our first problem.
What purpose does “the real world” serve?
Obviously the actions that Babydoll takes have to have real world repercussions. But that’s not my point here. I am wondering what purpose did all of that exposition serve to this story. Instead of sending Babydoll to an asylum, why not have the stepfather sell her to a pimp who takes her far away? Is there any difference to the story if that happens? Given that the majority of the character exposition and plot happens there, would the story not be better served that way? Or is there a point to building the bordello as a fantasy – that Babydoll must find a way to face her demons there in order to face them in “the real world”? If so, we are never shown. “The real world” is not visited again until almost the end of the movie. For all we know, the personalities of Babydoll and her girl squad are all the deranged delusions of a scared, mentally-broken girl.
Compare it to Ofelia’s journey into fantasy in Pan’s Labyrinth, where every one of her actions reverberates across the reality that the other characters must live in.
Of course, the big talking point right now is about empowerment and how this movie is either empowering to women or demeaning to the idea of empowerment of women. Let me just say that, if you’re seeking empowerment in this movie, you might as well go elsewhere. And I’m not saying that because the attractive cast of young women is dressed in schoolgirl outfits, thigh-high fishnets and bodices while shooting machine guns at hundreds of pixelated enemies. Cinema is full of attractive women who can be tough and sexy at the same time – Uma Thurman’s Bride, Pam Grier’s Coffy, Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley and Gina Torres’ Zoe are all examples of empowered, dangerous women who could pose on lingerie while holding an AR-15 at someone.
But the girls of Sucker Punch appear to be playing at being empowered and that’s because they’re not. If we follow the plot, they are all only empowered in the mind of the storyteller, Babydoll (more on that in a moment). And Babydoll herself is not empowered. She is being lined-up for a lobotomy to keep quiet or she’s days away from having her virginity sold to the highest bidder, depending on what plane her mind is. Intriguingly, she does not utter a word that we can hear in “the real world.” It’s not until another one of the girls is being assaulted in the bordello fantasy that she finds her voice.
The only true power the girls have at the bordello is the power to entrance men’s lustful attentions. The best dancer, Sweet Pea, recognizes this all to well and is therefore the most reluctant of the girls to agree to Babydoll’s escape plan. In an ironic twist, she becomes more meek and powerless the further the plan proceeds. She starts the movie as the star of the show and someone who can give orders and talk directly to Blue the Pimp as an equal. She ends the movie unable to say two words to protect herself and needing a kind man to save her. That’s empowerment?
Now I said I would mention something about Babydoll as the storyteller.
We obviously begin the movie with her story and it is her flashing down into the next two layers of fantasy that appear to propel the story. It’s she who dances while the action fantasies happen. It’s she who finds the Wise Man, the commanding officer who briefs them on their missions. It’s her escape plan and her choices are the ones that lead the others towards their own survival or doom.
And yet, the movie does not end with her. In the end, as Madame/Doctor Gorsky tells the audience, “it is you” who are in charge of the fantasy. So what’s the point of all that?
As the movie played, I keep thinking that the movie should have been subtitled “The Secret Lives of Your Masturbatory Fantasies.” What I mean is that, if you were to imagine your fantasies as real, complete persons that you were able to call upon at a moment’s whim and use as you saw fit, what would your fantasy creations think of you? Would they think of you as a noble, wise and capable commander? Someone who led them through wild adventures, always telling them where to go and what to do, but having their back and eventually setting them free? Or would they think of you as a pimp, cruel and dangerous? A being who used them and abused them for your own pleasure? Someone who might get mad that the toys don’t want to stay in the box and would hurt them and break them?
This is what makes a movie like this so difficult to dismiss. It’s not entirely, absolutely without merit. Yes, the visuals are striking. But I expect that out of Snyder. I expect slow-motion shots full of color and action. Whatever else can be said about him, the man knows how to color a movie screen.
But this idea that your subconscious is trying to break free from you – that the fantasies you’ve created want out is intriguing and interesting and the most redeeming aspect of this movie. One can almost be excused for thinking that Snyder created a 21st-century, anime-infused, comic-book version of Albert Camus’ The Myth of Sysiphus. There is no explanation to Sucker Punch, since Sucker Punch is absurd. Babydoll’s fantasies are absurd and her struggle is futile. So why try to fight it? Because it makes her happy. Now grab some guns and hope the fishnets fit!
I struggle to give Snyder even that much credit. In the end, this is such a convoluted mess that there is no way to know exactly what is meant, what is implied and what is left for the audience to fill in the blanks. It’s pretty and bombastic. But it doesn’t add up to anything. I’m left to wonder if Snyder will ever get a chance to do anything more than adaptations again – starting with The Man of Steel.