I’m going to preface this by saying that this review is not for everyone. If you, the reader, have formed an idea ahead of time of what you’re going to think of SUCKER PUNCH, the newest effort by DAWN OF THE DEAD and 300 filmmaker Zack Snyder, you are probably right. If you see leather-corseted, lace-gartered sexpots fighting dragons, zombies and Germans and think “holy cow, sign me up,” well, you’re going to get what you paid for. If you think it looks like an explosion at the cliché factory and might make you break out in hives just by being in the same room, nothing I have to say will change your mind. But if you’re not sure – if you liked Zack Snyder’s previous movies but aren’t sure about his ability to handle original material, if you enjoy action but want it to make sense, if you like fantasy but expect it to take place in a convincing fictional world…in other words, if you’re in the place I was in this weekend – then read on.
A young heiress (Emily Browning) is framed by her greedy stepfather for the murder of her twin sister and committed to an institution with the redundant name of the Lennox Home for the Mentally Insane (has anyone ever been physically insane?). Victimized by the staff and the psychiatrists, and threatened with lobotomy, she retreats to a fantasy world inside her head: a Moulin Rouge-like brothel populated by beautiful courtesans in corsets and thigh boots and run by a monologuing panderer named Blue (Oscar Isaac), with the asylum psychiatrist (Carla Gugino) as the girls’ madam. Teaming up with a coterie of her fellow dancers – girls with names like Rocket (Jena Malone) and Sweet Pea (Abbie Cornish) – our heroine, who calls herself Baby Doll, plans their escape from the brothel, using her miraculous ability to literally mesmerize Blue and his customers with her erotic dancing while her friends steal the items they need for freedom right from under their jailers’ noses.
Except we are never shown Baby Doll’s dancing; instead, each time she dances, Baby Doll and the other girls are precipitated into a second layer of unreality, a dream within a dream, where they find themselves navigating different imaginary landscapes – fantasy versions of feudal Japan, for instance, or World War I – and wielding swords and machine-guns against zombie samurai or clockwork Nazis to obtain mystical relics that represent the objects they are trying to purloin in the brothel. These fantasy sequences, with their lyrical CGI bloodletting, are the heart of the movie: everything else, the framing story in the real world and in the brothel, exists to justify their inclusion.
And that gets to the core of the problem with the movie: for a movie that is deeply unconcerned with plotting, characterization (the brothel girls are ciphers with no distinguishing characteristics beyond hair color and cup size), dialogue or the other rudiments of storytelling, SUCKER PUNCH has a strange, self-conscious preoccupation with justifying everything. Zack Snyder clearly wanted to make a movie about dragons and Zeppelins and samurai, but instead of committing to that and creating a full-fledged fantasy world that could support an interesting story with those elements, he and his cowriter Steve Shibuya justify them as a dream, with the result that the action scenes have absolutely no stakes or drama, because nothing is “really” happening (contrast with INCEPTION, where no matter how many layers down the rabbit hole we went, the story made sure to show us why the action mattered). And just as clearly, Snyder wanted to make a movie about beautiful girls in fantastical costumes, but he seems ashamed of sexualizing these women, so we get a patronizing and tissue-thin message of female empowerment that would be a lot more convincing if the females in question were believable people with actual character traits, and that also, because of the nature of the story, ends up clumsily contradicting itself: Baby Doll isn’t empowered, she’s a delusional victim of abusive authority figures who want to shut off her mind.
Is SUCKER PUNCH all bad? No, of course not. The movie has its pleasures; I’m not going to cross my fingers behind my back and pretend that it hurt me to watch beautiful ingenues parade around in midriff-baring fetish costumes. The movie’s soundtrack features the entertaining conceit of using classic rock and pop songs covered by female vocalists, including Browning herself on an actually quite decent version of the Pixies’ “Where is My Mind.” And considered apart from the story, the fantasy sequences are very arrestingly lush in that speed-ramped, desaturated, hyper-unreal way that Snyder has brought to his other movies. They’d make excellent music videos; it’s just that they can’t carry an entire movie, and their impact is lessened because the “real world” sequences are barely more realistic-looking.
But as I said way back in the beginning, there are people for whom those visuals are going to be enough, who just want something pretty to watch while they shut off their brains. And there are other people who will dismiss the movie simply because of its fantasy. I feel like SUCKER PUNCH as a movie ironically puts the lie to both of those perspectives: as it shows us, there is beauty and worth in fantasy, in the exercise of the creative imagination – but as it also shows us, we should probably not be quite so eager to let ourselves or anyone else turn off our brains.