Suckered? Why Zach Snyder’s “Sucker Punch” deserves reconsideration

27 June, 2011 (13:11) | Blu-ray, by Sean Axmaker, DVD, Film Reviews, Science Fiction | By: Sean Axmaker

Sucker Punch (Warner)

There is no doubt that Zach Snyder’s Sucker Punch, the director’s first original script, is a mess of movie. Even the term “original” is a questionable description, as the wide range of influences define the film as much as his own pop sensibilities. Yet Sucker Punch was so critically derided that I think it’s been dismissed without really acknowledging the mad mix of inspirations or Snyder’s own blinkered passion for the project, clearly something that, for reasons he may not be able to articulate, he poured his creative energies into.

Sucker Punch's Baby Doll squad

The vague mid-20th Century setting with a 19th century Gothic attitude and 1990s music-video stylings drops Baby Doll (Emily Browning) into a private sanitarium that looks like something out of the Batman movies. But before we have a chance to ruminate on this post-Dickens orphanage horror we are plunged into her fantasy of the place as a bordello prison fronted by a gangster (the head orderly, with a pencil mustache and zoot suit) in the flesh trade, with the Cuckoo’s Nest of pretty young inmates (Abbie Cornish, Jena Malone, Vanessa Hudgens, Jamie Chung) now dancers in the show, which is just part of the club’s entertainment. (The extended version on Blu-ray features an elaborate musical number that puts their chorus girl moves on display.)

But that’s just the first step down the rabbit hole of escapist fantasy. Under the hypnotic sways of Baby Doll’s magic moves, the girls are refashioned as jailbait stripper fantasies (all with exposed navels and a flash of thigh) and arm themselves with heavy metal artillery to take on one anachronistic video game scenario after another: a samurai rite of passage, a World War II mission against zombie Nazis, a siege on a castle of Orc-like beasts and dragons, a sci-fi odyssey against robot terrorists on a moon of Saturn. Because nothing says female empowerment better than little babydoll outfits and really big guns.

It’s ridiculous and often incoherent, but also oddly fun in the sheer overkill of pulp and fantasy imagery. It’s all dropped into the blender of Snyder’s mind and poured out through animated environments and monstrous armies of unreal foes they have to defeat in order to escape the asylum. It’s Grimm fairy tale, gothic thriller, twisted film noir, wacked-out madhouse melodrama, modern video game and cheesecake spectacle framed by dime-store Freud and Jung on the one hand, and pop music themes turned into tragic anthems.

Snyder doesn’t appear to have thought any of this out. He exploits and empowers his heroines in equal measure and seems unaware of the crazy contradictions of his message and the inconsistencies in his characters. Forget the obvious incongruity of Baby Doll imagining her fight for freedom in terms of movie genres and video game imagery that didn’t even exist in her era. Why would she imagine herself as an adolescent boy’s sexual fantasy? I’m not saying there’s no good reason for it—our minds are often colonized cultural perspectives that do us no good—just that he never bothers to even suggest one.

But for all the complaints about the cartoonishness of the set pieces, there are suggestions (well, vestiges of suggestions) of girls imprisoned by cultural stereotypes and corrupt chauvinism, fighting their way out of demeaning definitions applied to them by embracing the imagery and turning it on their oppressors.

Yes, you’re right, that’s a stretch. But I think there’s at least a little of that drive under Snyder’s inarticulate expressions of rebellion. And he has palpable compassion for the commitment of these girls and for the sacrifices they make for one another. There is tragedy and triumph wrapped together and ultimately a sense of empowerment buried under the exploitation. Mostly, though, it’s a crazy ride though Snyder’s pop culture subconscious. And if you suspend your disbelief at the mixed messages and warped metaphors, its excesses and overkill can be fun.

Sam Adams also defends the film at Time Out Chicago, where he makes the case that its a film maudit: “a project cursed by circumstance or out-of-control instincts that’s nonetheless revealing in a way successful films rarely are.” To give credit where it is due, this piece was in part inspired by Adams’ short essay and by a short conversation with Adams about our shared interest in the film. Thanks, Sam.

The DVD and single-disc Blu-ray edition features four animated “prequel stories” set in the fantasy realms of the film, short pieces without much substance that were also used as promotional shorts for the film, and a very brief featurette (under four minutes) on the musical soundtrack.

An extended cut of the film, running 17 minutes longer (including a major musical number), is featured on the Blu-ray+DVD+Digital Copy three-disc set, along with the exclusive “Maximum Movie Mode” audio/video commentary track. Zack Snyder really embraces this type of interaction and steps in to deconstruct scenes and explain himself, but he’s most engaged when it comes to explaining the execution. Though his cites Joseph Campbell along the way, he never really articulates his intentions. The rest of the mode is filled with picture-in-picture behind-the-scenes footage, interviews, effects work, and storyboards.

See a clip from the “Maximum Movie Mode” of the Blu-ray on my coverage of the release at Videodrone.

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Comments

Comment from Brad Wilke
Time June 27, 2011 at 4:47 pm

This is great to read, because I, too, found myself defending this film upon its release for what it was trying to do, not necessarily for what it managed to actually accomplish onscreen. In fact, after seeing it, I wanted to take my 13 year-old niece because I thought it had such a strong female empowerment message. Sure, it’s a mess, but it’s also definitely the type of failure I wouldn’t mind seeing more of these days.

Comment from Jim
Time October 25, 2011 at 11:30 am

I agree that this film isn’t for everyone, but I found myself really liking it in spite of all of the criticisms I had read about it. You’re not meant to track the story, to gather clues and watch the characters learn lessons about themselves. And that’s what movie going audiences expect from their movies. I thought this was more of a stream-of-consciousness movie, one that would have, perhaps, been even more enjoyable with a few drinks under your belt to blunt your innate desire for a coherent story. I can’t say that I would recommend it to anyone, but I thought it was a lot of fun and I can’t wait to see the Blu-Ray. I’m just hoping now that Mr. Snyder can adhere to good storytelling as he makes Superman…

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