Main characters aren’t like batteries or light bulbs that you can swap out
With apologies to the band 311, "Sucker Punch" is a beautiful disaster.
It’s a terrible movie that gets even worse the more you think about it. And yet after seeing it, I feel that Zack Snyder could be a great filmmaker if he weren’t so damn self indulgent. You can almost see where this could have been great. Or maybe just good. Maybe.
WARNING: MAJOR SPOILERS AHEAD
You can’t really talk about what makes this movie horrendous without going into the story in some detail, especially the ending.
Baby Doll (Emily Browning) is committed to a mental institution by her evil stepdad and scheduled to get a lobotomy in five days by a corrupt orderly. She escapes into a fantasy world and imagines the institution is a combination brothel/burlesque house run by a mobster.
In the brothel, Baby Doll plans her escape with the help of some fellow captives. She then retreats into fantasy where she imagines herself and her friends are kick ass super heroines battling giant samurai, steampunk World War I zombie German soldiers, dragons, and robots.
Finally, at the end, Baby Doll decides to sacrifice herself so one of her friends can escape. “This was always your story,” she says. And it’s here that you clearly see how big of a mess this is. It’s one thing to screw up a good plan. But "Sucker Punch" was supposed to be this bad. This is the sucker punch of the title; our main character isn’t really our main character. The problem is this isn’t so much of a jolt. Instead of a punch it’s more like a spitball.
That’s because throughout the story Baby Doll has been living up to one half of her name; she’s shown all the emotion of a mannequin. She has few facial expressions, almost no interaction or relationship with the other characters. If it weren’t for the fantasy sequences and a few bursts of violence she wouldn’t have anything at all to do in the movie.
But at the end we find out that was actually part of the plan. She wasn’t the real heroine — it was this other character, who admittedly showed a lot more life. So Zack Snyder meant for his main character to be an emotionless block of wood. That makes it OK. Right?
More like it sums up the monumental level of fail achieved with this project. Main characters aren’t like batteries or light bulbs that you can swap out. Baby Doll’s not the heroine? Then why spend 10 minutes on that overwrought opening with her stepfather? Does the stepfather get away with murder? Even if he doesn’t Baby Doll still spends the rest of her life lobotomized.
The opening was indulgent, but it at least created some anticipation for the evil stepdad to get his comeuppance at the end. But we never see that. So the ending renders the beginning pointless and allows a major villain to go unpunished as far as we can tell.
This isn’t the deliberate frustration of expectations. For an example of how to do that correctly, see "The Great Silence" by Sergio Corbucci. In "Sucker Punch," it’s just a mistake. That director and co-writer Zack Snyder meant to do it all along doesn’t change that. The only person who should be pleased with this is Emily Browning. She can honestly say, “Please, don’t judge my acting ability on this pile of crap. I was supposed to be that lifeless.”
The ending also contradicts the supposed theme of the story that they repeat over and over again, “You have to fight for survival.” Really the theme is, “You have to fight until the script says you have to give up.” Of course maybe the theme isn’t that at all. It could be any of the other clichés the script openly states like “If you stand for nothing, you’ll fall for anything” or “Don’t let your mouth write checks your butt can’t cash.” It’s hard to tell. If the script treated the theme as actual theme and not just as tacked on line things might have been better.
The layers of fantasy I guess are inspired by the dream within a dream idea from Inception. But here it makes no sense (or if you’re an Inception hater, it makes even less sense.) Why would Baby Doll escape from the mental institution into a fantasy world where things are even worse? The institution is no picnic but it has to be better than a brothel where you are basically a slave and can get shot in the head.
And why does Baby Doll then escape even further into a violent cartoon fantasy? During these scenes she’s supposedly getting in tune with the music and dancing seductively for the brothel customers. Why does this girl possess the inner child of an 11 year old fanboy? How does shooting androids with an assault rifle equal the sexy time dance?
But forget those questions for a moment. From the beginning Snyder shoots the “real” world segments with the same over-the-top excess that’s become his signature. What’s the point of fantasy if nothing in this movie is even close to reality? Some variation of style was sorely needed, especially in the beginning.
As for the beautiful part, regardless of how the movie got there and even though they make no sense in the story, the action fantasy scenes are amazing to behold. There were some undeniably gorgeous shots in the film and their beauty had nothing to do with the cast’s revealing wardrobe.
The steampunk World War I battle sequence is stunning. This is clearly the whole point of the movie. It’s real heart. Nothing at all matters to the filmmaker beyond these few scenes of wild imagination. If they let Charlie Sheen lose in Industrial Light and Magic I can imagine the results would be similar.
There are some other things that didn’t suck. Jena Malone and Abbie Cornish, playing sisters Rocket and Sweet Pea, gave good performances. They were the only two characters in the entire script who had a real relationship. The film would have been 100 times better if it really had been about them. Oscar Isaac plays the both the crooked orderly and the gangster who runs the brothel. He’s very good. His brothel boss is strutting and menacing. His orderly character is still evil but a lot smaller and more pathetic.
Ultimately, what we have here isn’t a movie. It’s more like Zack Snyder’s id plastered on an IMAX screen. Maybe it could have been good or great if he’d yoked that deranged subconscious to a well thought out screenplay. But that didn’t happen.
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