Occasionally it get cajoled into reviewing a film I probably wouldn’t have watched. I said right from the start that I don’t mind taking requests for reviews on here. Usually it pays off well, for example the films Dear Wendy, The King, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang and Lucky Number Slevin were all requested by people I know or from readers in the comments. Sucker Punch is one I resisted though for a while. Plenty of people had told me to watch it. I think these people hate me because Sucker Punch is terrible. Really, really terrible.
So here’s the story and forgive me if you have trouble following me here. It’s not that it is complex, more that it’s just nonsense. A young woman nicknamed Babydoll (Emily Browning) has recently lost her mother, she and her sister are left in the care of their step-father who apparently murdered their mother and got away with it. After he makes an attempt to attack Babydoll’s little sister Babydoll fights back and… OK I’m not sure if this was meant to be a revelation for the end of the film cos it was pretty obvious from the start… she accidentally shoots her little sis. As a result her step-father gets her put into a mental asylum and pays off an orderly to forge a signature to schedule a lobotomy for Babydoll in 5 days. High stakes stuff huh? Right, over the next paragraph I’ll explain the bulk of the plot and then what actually happens.
Babydoll decides she needs to escape and formulates a plan. The asylum’s lead doctor Vera Gorski (Carla Gugino) likes to use theatrical mini productions to bring out her patients inner turmoil, this is pretty much conveyed via a few lines of dialogue and the slightest of a demonstration, you could honestly blink and miss it. Over the rest of the film Babydoll puts her plan into effect with the help of the other patients on her route to freedom.
Babydoll arrives at the asylum and sees that brief introduction tot he doctors methods. She locks eyes with one of the girls and we head into a montage which leads to her about to receive her lobotomy. Suddenly she’s on stage and it’s part of the doctors therapy… and then we’re in burlesque club/brothel. Babydoll needs a dance apparently and when people see her dance they become mesmerised and she fights giant samurai robots in her head receiving all the information she needs via clunky exposition for a rental version of Leonard Nimoy. She tells her plan to the other girls which involves her dancing for people while the girls do all the hard work pick pocketing or stealing the items needed. 5 items in all, a map, fire, a knife, a key and something mysterious… you can probably guess what because it’s the same as every other mysterious McGuffin in these sorts of films. Every time Babydoll dances we’re taken to a fantasy world were her and the girls fight mechanical Nazis and dragons and whatnot.
So lets get this straight, she dances, guys stare and then we see a 10 minute MTV music video for whatever song, usually a hipster cover of something previously popular, is playing at the time whilst a girl picks someone’s pocket. Basically every action sequence means nothing. There’s no danger in them because it’s entirely fantasy. This isn’t her using a dance to create an alternate dimension or something. It’s literally a dream. No-one is in any danger whilst fighting off the dragons. Technically the other girls that join her aren’t even there. They’re just stood around watching her dance while one of them reaches for a cigarette lighter or a knife. Which apparently takes 10 minutes and one of the dances painfully demonstrates for us. Without stakes the action sequence means nothing at all. The goal doesn’t exist within the location the action takes place in. It exists in the real world, which is also a fantasy.
There’s a basic rule of thumb to story telling, a reason most films are in three acts in fact. That is that all story consists of three stages. Set-up, execution and pay-off. Sucker Punch is entirely execution with very little pay-off. The set-up is there in the basic premise but not all that follows. For example, why does Babydoll dream up these particular worlds? Why the burlesque house? Why the samurai world. We nothing about who she is before arriving at the asylum other than she despises her stepfather and wants to protect her sister from him. She doesn’t say a word for about 15 minutes of the film even. As a counter example in the surrealist film Jan Svankmejer’s Alice, an adaptation of Alice In Wonderland that uses everyday objects as animation devices, every item we see come to life in the film is present in the room Alice is playing in as she falls asleep and begins her dream of this Wonderland. We realise she is in a dream and we make that connection because the objects we have seen are now coming to life. Surrealists are very big on dreams, not so big on interpretation but Alice is one of the exceptions. What can we interpret from Sucker Punch? That Zack Snyder should not be writing his own movies most likely.
His previous works are as follows. Dawn Of The Dead (remake) which was written by the excellent Mr James Gunn. It’s a decent film that was smart enough to approach the original from a different angle rather than repeat the work. Then Snyder made 300 which was based on the comics of Frank Miller, it’s passable mostly being hindered by the slightness of its story. After this he made Watchmen which I consider a damn fine film. Not an easy source to adapt but what a source. The comic it’s based on was written by Alan Moore who is literally this ages greatest writer, most of the time. Snyder follows this with Legend Of The Guardians. It’s another book adaptation and it’s fairly solid if a little messy with it’s plot. Point being when Snyder has someone’s framework to base his film around he can do decent, if overly stylish stuff. He understands how to adapt but not how to craft his own world. I would wonder if he’s ever read Syd Field’s Guide To Screenwriting or Robert McKee’s Story even. Both are essential reading for any story tellers. He fails to understand how to engage the audience with a character. He fails to understand basic the set-up, execution and pay-off stages of a story. And he fails to explain clearly what the reality of the world is.
As far as camera work goes he is fine though. The film has his usual glossy sheen all over it. I don’t mind the look he uses, it works for highly stylised films, but he should probably learn about appropriate tones at some point. You can’t feel the threat of a potential rape scene when everything looks so beautiful and clinically precise whilst all in slow motion, of course. I can’t help but feel that the film would have been a lot better if it was wholly grounded in reality though. A more earthy tone to the colour pallet. Make it about a mental asylum where the patients are secretly forced to dance and please wealthy clients. Have none of that fantasy action scene nonsense and base it around the girls using the charms they have been forced to learn to acquire what they need to escape. I get that Zack wants to reel us in and then hit us with the sucker punch that is the action scenes but they have so little weight to the films actual proceedings that they just fall flat every single time. There’s so much exposition too, especially in the early fantasy scenes that you’re instantly losing interest before the sword is swung. It also doesn’t help that the effects have a little bit of a student CGI project feel to them in places.
Overall Sucker Punch is a total mess. Nothing works at all. I’m sure Zack had good intentions and I suppose we should be glad that his own ideas are at least this unique. He just needs to understand what makes a story work. In an interview Zack said “A while ago I had written a script for myself and there was a sequence in it that made me think, ‘How can I make a film that can have action sequences in it that aren’t limited by the physical realities that normal people are limited by, but still have the story make sense so it’s not, and I don’t mean to be mean, like a bullshit thing like Ultraviolet or something like that.”. The shame here is that that is very nearly exactly what he made. If it wasn’t for his superior skill with how to actually make something look stylish he really would have made a film as bad as Ultraviolet. Sucker Punch barely manages to avoid being that bad and pointless.