The Good: Effects, Moments of concept
The Bad: Obvious plot, Lack of sensibility, No great performances, Character is sublimated for effect, Castrated effects.
The Basics: After months of anticipation, Sucker Punch falls seriously flat for anyone with a brain in their head . . . or a comprehensive knowledge of genre film history.
The return of my blog to cyberspace came at a particularly good time; I have spent months eagerly awaiting the release of Sucker Punch and while I would have loved to had my review up after a midnight screening, because my blog wasn't functional that night, I held off for its return and a matinee. I am now exceptionally glad that I did. I write those words with a pretty heavy heart. Zack Snyder's last cinematic epic, Watchmen (reviewed here!), leapt right onto my Top Ten Of All Time movie list and knowing that Sucker Punch was co-written and directed by him was a huge selling point for me. After all, if Snyder could made someone else's work into an amazing cinematic achievement, what could he do on his own?! Unfortunately, the answer - for myself and anyone who has ever seen Terry Gilliam's masterpiece Brazil (reviewed here!) - is, sadly, nothing. At least, he isn't able to do anything extraordinary or original with Sucker Punch.
In fact, Sucker Punch is unfortunately lazy and is more than just an attempt to make Brazil sexy or relevant again. The greatest disappointment of the slick, easy-to-watch film is arguably how it dumbs itself down to get the PG-13 rating it was handed. After the explicit qualities of 300 and Watchmen, fans of Zack Snyder's works will be immensely disappointed at how castrated and bloodless Sucker Punch is. But more than that, despite the few lines of dialogue thrown in at the end, there is little surprise to Sucker Punch; there is no surprise to the protagonist's lobotomy because after years of films with death dreams and reality-bending scenarios, the median audience is smart enough to see everything in Sucker Punch coming. What we do not see coming is told to us at the end and, lamely, does not improve the film in any noticeable way.
Baby Doll is a twenty year-old young woman whose mother dies, leaving her and her little sister in the hands of her stepfather. Angered that his wife bequeathed everything to her two daughters, Baby Doll's sister is killed and she is framed for the murder, which allows her stepfather to get her condemned to an insane asylum in Vermont. There, the stepfather pays the facility's administrator to have her lobotomized and after a week in the facility, Baby Doll finds herself strapped down to face the lobotomy spike.
But just before the hammer falls, Baby Doll demands the doctor stop and everyone in the room becomes her peers in the asylum; other young women like her who have been committed. Baby Doll is told how things work in the asylum by Rocket; the asylum is part of a club where the women dance before prostituting themselves to the locals. The villainous head of the facility, Blue Jones, is saving Baby Doll for the High Roller. As Baby Doll prepares to be used, she discovers she has a power in her dancing. While she dances, she escapes into a fantasy realm where she distracts the authorities while her friends Sweet Pea, Rocket, Blondie and Amber steal the objects needed to make their escape. As the day of the High Roller's arrival nears, all of their lives are put in increasing jeopardy as Baby Doll fights for their freedom in her dreamscape.
Sucker Punch initially seemed like it might be edgy and dark, but much of the problem with the movie is that it does not live up to the ambition of a movie where the protagonist has to escape the horrors of her world by entering a dream world. So, for example, the commercials implied - with the emphasis on the falling button - that Baby Doll is being sexually abused by her stepfather, but he's simply in a one-time murderous rage at the time. The result is feeling that there is little special or honestly as traumatic as implied in the story of Baby Doll that makes her need to slide into her imagination world to survive. Moreover, I went into Sucker Punch eager, but feeling that I had seen much of the movie through the slew of previews aired for the film. To the credit of the filmmakers and promotion companies, a surprisingly little amount of the movie is actually in the previews. Sadly, despite having a whole lot more in the film than is in the multitude of previews, there is actually very little not in the previews.
By this, I mean that Sucker Punch is a lot of repetition and it quickly becomes the antithesis of entertainment because not only have viewers seen the sequences before - in other movies and in the previews - they have seen it all before within the film. So, in virtually every dream sequence, there is the leap with the hitting the ground in a crouch, the look up, the jump in air where Baby Doll remains suspended an unrealistic amount of time. While Baby Doll and her friends move from the trenches of a World War scenario to a castle with a dragon to a futuristic train with robotic assailants, the fights they have at each level are remarkably similar.
And that is where the bloodless quality of the movie seems remarkably pedestrian, pandering to those who want action without anything incredible. At each level, Baby Doll and her team encounter adversaries who do not bleed; zombie Germans reanimated with cloth and steam, goblin-like monsters who can be slayed, but not spray any blood when they are chopped in half, and robots. Even Baby Doll's eventual revelation at the climax is problematically free of blood and a scene prior to that wherein people are shot at close range - without any splatter - is utterly laughable. One suspects Zack Snyder will come out with some form of "ultimate edition," but even realism to the gore or actually showing the characters getting smacked around when it happens will not save Sucker Punch.
The reason little can be done to save Sucker Punch is because the fault is not in the special effects. The movie is easy to watch. It's twenty-something Hollywood-thin chicks running around like schoolgirls in boots, short skirts and halter tops toting guns and swords. It's a masturbatory fantasy of anyone who likes to mix sex and violence and Snyder succeeds on that level.
The problem is there is no substance to back it up. The characters in Sucker Punch are homogeneously uninteresting. Baby Doll is not terribly distinctive and one has to wonder why she is living with her parents at age twenty when she is characterized as almost fiercely independent while in the asylum. The others are never delved into deep enough to be viable characters, so the whole characterization seems to just be "looks good in skimpy outfits."
As for the acting, it is uniformly bland when it isn't outright bad. Emily Browning's performance seems to mostly be based on her ability to stare into the camera and keep her lips parted as some mundane idea of what passes as sexy these days. Browning's portrayal of Baby Doll is sexy only to those who look for flash and no substance. The character acts lobotomized throughout and Browning sways to imply the hypnotic dances, but she never has enough zest to truly draw the eye or titillate the viewer.
Backed by usually solid performers like Carla Gugino and Jena Malone, Browning's performance stands out only as the most focused on performance in a movie where style continually trumps substance. Malone, especially, has been known to take small roles and make them significant. She shined in Donnie Darko (reviewed here!) despite how small the role actually was, yet her Rocket never breaks out. Similarly, Gugino's Dr. Gorski seems more like an archetype than a substantial individual.
Avoiding a discussion of the technical flaws - sword impacts obviously behind the neck as opposed to through it - and problems with perspective (i.e. scenes not featuring Baby Doll, despite the fact almost the entire film is her imagination), Sucker Punch is still a disappointment that will never be the cult classic it could have been.
For other films with Oscar Isaac, please check out my reviews of:
Star Wars: The Force Awakens
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© 2011 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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