Whenever I go to see a movie in a theater, I always like to guess the intended audience based on the previews. Last weekend I saw “Sucker Punch,” Zack Snyder’s new action film starring scantily clad women with guns. I saw previews for two generic action flicks, two movies based off of comic books, one Adam Sandler comedy, and “The Hangover 2.” From this, I surmised that advertisers thought I should be a male between the ages of 16 and 24. A quick glance around the theater confirmed that they were right on target: I counted three females in the relatively full theater, including myself, and all of us appeared to be there with our boyfriends.
My taste in movies does generally line up with that of males ages 16 to 24. I’m a huge Zack Snyder fan. I’ve seen “300,” a film Snyder directed in 2006, more times than I can count. I loved his “Watchmen” despite the fact that most of the screen time seemed to be taken up by Dr. Manhattan’s giant blue genitalia. I even dragged my father along to see “The Spirit,” a 2008 film directed by Frank Miller (who wrote the graphic novel “300” was based on) that almost no one saw and even fewer people liked because I mistakenly thought Snyder was directing it. (I ended up thoroughly enjoying it anyway.) So when I saw the trailer for “Sucker Punch,” I, like any good fanboy, was extremely excited for it.
And then the reviews rolled in. “Sucker Punch” currently has a rating of 22 percent on Rotten Tomatoes, and the reviews attached to that rating are vicious. The film is “as dull as watching somebody else play an incoherent video game,” says Jim Lane of “Sacramento News and Review.” It “manages to be ugly, stupid, offensive, sexist and boring in equal measures,” according to Clem Bastow of “The Vine.” “The baleful influences of David Lynch, kung fu pictures, and “Shutter Island” lie behind its rancid lucubrations,” said Phillip French of the UK “Guardian.” Ouch.
I thought these awful reviews had sufficiently lowered my expectations of the film so that I might actually be able to enjoy it from a purely aesthetic point of view. And yet I still managed to be disappointed. Why? Because this film so easily could have been awesome, or at the very least entertaining. When Snyder enters in to the special-effects heavy fantasy world that is his specialty, no one can do it better. The action sequences did not disappoint: “The movie may suck, but I’d buy the video game,” said my aforementioned boyfriend halfway through the first one. What they needed was a semi-coherent plot to hold them together.
Here’s the gist: pigtailed schoolgirl Baby Doll (gag), played by Emily Browning, is sent by her evil stepfather to a mental hospital for the killing of her younger sister, which is actually his crime. Once there, Baby Doll must escape her hideous fate of lobotomy by gathering a super troupe of five sexy female inmates to gather the four items that will help them to escape. In order to obtain these items, Baby Doll dances for the people who possess them, and they are so entranced by her apparently incredible dance skills that they don’t notice the items being stolen from under their noses.
This is my first issue with the plot: the characters make a point of telling us that escape from the institution is impossible and the girls who have attempted it were all killed. And yet they react as though Baby Doll has come up with the world’s most brilliant plan: find the map that shows them how to get out, use fire to create a distraction, get a knife to kill anyone who gets in their way, and finally, obtain the key that conveniently opens all the doors. On the one hand, this seems like the weakest escape plan in the history of filmmaking. On the other, this mental hospital seriously needs to upgrade its security system if they think it’s a good idea to have maps and keys lying around that can so easily aid would-be escapists. Furthermore, we never see the dancing with which Baby Doll ensnares her victims. Browning simply sways back and forth a few times and we are transported to her fantasy world, where the girls fight their way to the items in question.
The complaint of confusion lobbied against “Sucker Punch” is perhaps its most deserved criticism, and in my opinion much of that confusion was connected to the inclusion of a brothel aspect to the plot. The film suddenly switches from Baby Doll’s imprisonment at the mental hospital to her arrival at a brothel, in which many of the same characters appear in different roles (a corrupt orderly as the now-mustachioed brothel owner, a guard as the inexplicably rich mayor of this middle-of-nowhere Vermont town, a female psychiatrist as the dance teacher for the strippers, Baby Doll’s stepfather as a priest who brings her there). Many audience members seemed to think that the mental hospital was connected to the brothel in real life, but this connection was never explained. I settled for thinking that just as Baby Doll imagines the stealing of the items in an elaborate fantasy world, the entire brothel was inside her head as well.
The problem with this imagined brothel is that it really doesn’t seem like that terrible a place to escape from. The girls there are treated to a seemingly endless supply of lingerie, heels and makeup, free dance lessons, and the opportunity to star in a burlesque routine. Baby Doll and her gang don’t seem to mind that the sexual aspects of their occupation; instead, they giggle as they trade tips on how best to please their clients and squabble over who is the best dancer. Really, the entire brothel scenario seems to be an excuse for Snyder to put his actresses (who are obviously chosen for attractiveness rather than acting ability) in skimpy clothing and objectify them. For shame, Zack.
What I really wanted from the film was contrast between the extravagance of Baby Doll’s fantasy and the harsh reality of her situation. When she and her gang of kickass babes shoot and slice their way across the gorgeously rendered landscape, they are taking back control over their lives. In the mental institution, however, they are powerless and at the mercy of others (men) who exploit them. Snyder could have portrayed the bleakness of this situation, but instead we are shuttled from one glamorous world to another, with no semblance of reality in between.
Still, I have reason not to give up on Snyder just yet. The first five minutes of the film were easily the best of the entire film: a dialogue-free, visually striking, emotionally charged self-contained mini-film that depicted the death of Baby Doll’s mother and sister with typical Snyder slow-motion and faded coloring. This was the visual storytelling that I wanted from the rest of the film, and Snyder proved that he could do it. When he comes out with his next film (hopefully one with a story conceived by someone else), I will certainly watch it. Zack Snyder has talent; it’s just not for writing.