Sucker Punch (2011)
Zach Snyder’s Sucker Punch (2011) provides escapism filled with robots, dragons, steampunk zombies, scantily-clad women, lobotomies, and loud covers of your favorite classic rock songs. According to various interviews, Snyder intended the film as some sort of feminist critique of sexist geek culture, but judging by the overwhelmingly negative critical reaction and dismal box office performance, it’s safe to say he didn’t quite get his message across. The movie is a lot more entertaining than its scathing reviews would indicate, but Sucker Punch ultimately falls into the same trap as other allegedly subversive movies like Starship Troopers, in that the finished product isn’t noticeably different from the thing it’s supposedly critiquing.
In the 1960s, a young girl who we come to know only by the nickname Babydoll (Emily Browning) tries to cope with the unexpected death of her mother. However, she doesn’t get long to grieve when her abusive stepfather discovers that her mother left her entire estate to Babydoll and her sister. In a drunken rage, the man moves in to kill and/or sexually assault the girls, but Babydoll pulls a gun on him. Unfortunately, she ends up killing her sister instead, and is soon carted off to a mental institution.
Her stepfather bribes the chief orderly (Oscar Isaac) into having her lobotomized. Flash forward to Babydoll strapped into a chair as a doctor begins the procedure. Just as he goes to drive his long metal instrument into her eye socket, Babydoll opens her eyes and is suddenly in another world.
The institution is now a burlesque club/brothel operated by a mobster named Blue Jones (also played by Isaac). Babydoll is apparently being forced into a life of prostitution here, and the first thing Blue makes her do is come up with a dance routine with the help of Madame Gorski (Carla Gugino). Babydoll quickly makes friends with the other girls of the brothel, who all go by nicknames: Blondie (Vanessa Hudgens), Amber (Jaime Chung), Rocket (Jena Malone), and Rocket’s older sister Sweet Pea (Abbie Cornish).
Babydoll is soon ordered to dance for Blue. As music plays, she closes her eyes and is taken to yet another world. Here, she’s dressed in a schoolgirl outfit and standing in a snowy forest. She enters an enormous Japanese temple, where she meets a Wise Man (Scott Glenn) who provides her with weapons and tells her that to earn her freedom, she’ll need five items: a map, fire, a knife, a key, and a unnamed final item.
He then locks her out of the temple, where she’s forced to defend herself against three samurai giants. After she defeats them in a big anime-style fight, she opens her eyes and is once again in the brothel, with the suggestion that the fight we just saw was some sort of stylized representation of her dance. Baby Doll’s routine is apparently hypnotizing and animalistic and erotically charged, but that’s only according to the other characters, because all we ever see in the movie is Babydoll swaying her shoulders for a moment or two before we head into the next fantasy fight sequence.
In their dressing room, Babydoll tells the girls about the five items and her plan to break free, which is all the more urgent because a “high roller” will be there in five days to claim her. Most of the girls are on board, though Sweet Pea fears her sister might get hurt and requires more convincing. But eventually, she comes around and the girls decide they’re going to steal the items they need (one at a time, of course) while Babydoll is distracting all the men with her dancing.
While Sweet Pea steals a map from Blue’s office, Babydoll dances for Blue, and closes her eyes and is transported to a steampunk World War I-inspired scene. The Wise Man appears as a general, and orders the girls to do battle with mechanically-reanimated German zombie soldiers to obtain a map. After a long fight where Amber pilots a giant mecha-gunner decorated with a pink bunny face, they get the map and Babydoll opens her eyes to find herself back in the brothel.
Next up, Amber volunteers to be in charge of getting the “fire” on the list. She decides the only way to do this is by stealing a lighter out of the pocket of the mayor, one of the brothel’s frequent customers. (Really? They can’t figure out any other way to start a fire? It’s a nightclub in the 1960s, aren’t there matchbooks everywhere?)
As Amber goes for the mayor’s lighter, Babydoll dances, closes her eyes, and is soon flying above a medieval castle under siege by orc-like creatures. While onboard a World War II-era bomber, the girls get orders from the Wise Man/General to find a baby dragon, slit its throat, and pull out the crystals in its throat that make fire. Babydoll manages to do this, but also wakes up the dragon’s mother in the process. But after Amber the pilot creates a distraction, Babydoll kills Mama Dragon, and once again opens her eyes and is back in the brothel.
The next “dance” sequence involves the girls trying to steal a knife from the nightclub’s head chef, while in the fantasy battle sequence, they’re on an alien moon, fighting off robots in order to disarm a bomb on a train before it reaches a city.
Unfortunately, they’re unable to disengage the bomb and have to bail out, and Rocket ends up giving her jet pack to Sweet Pea so she can escape, sacrificing herself. Rocket gets blown up along with the city, while in Brothel World, the chef has caught onto the plan and stabbed Rocket to death.
Blue is outraged and locks Sweet Pea away, and then forces Blondie to confess the plan to him. Just before Babydoll is set to dance for the high roller (Jon Hamm), Blue confronts the girls in the dressing room, shooting Amber and Blondie at point blank range. He then attempts to rape Babydoll, but she pulls out the chef’s knife and stabs him in the neck and steals the next item on the list: the key that Blue wears as a necklace.
She uses the key to free Sweet Pea and the two start a fire and make their escape. Unfortunately, a group of mobsters stand in their path. In an instant, Babydoll realizes the unnamed item on the list is herself. Proclaiming that “this was never my story”, she tells Sweet Pea to get away while she distracts the mobsters. She knees one in the groin, which earns her a punch in the face that knocks her out cold.
Instantly, she’s back in the insane asylum, as the doctor (also played by Hamm) finishes the lobotomy. But he’s disturbed by the look Babydoll gave him just before he did it, and talks about it with her psychiatrist (also played by Gugino). They soon figure out the signature on the lobotomy order was forged, and the police quickly show up to arrest the chief orderly.
It’s then revealed that everything that happened in the brothel actually happened in the asylum, and all the girls were really Babydoll’s fellow patients, which I guess means the chief orderly killed two patients and nobody was bothered by this? Regardless, we see Sweet Pea making her way back home. At a bus station, she’s stopped by police, but the bus driver, who also happens to be the Wise Man/General, vouches for her and allows her to ride his bus to freedom.
The action scenes were this movie’s main selling point, but they’re way too visually busy, with every available inch of screen space taken up by computer graphics. And there’s not even the slightest attempt to play by the rules of real-world physics here, which along with Zack Snyder’s trademark overuse of slow-mo means there’s not much in the way of suspense or tension in any of the battle scenes. With only a few exceptions, these sequences are about as exciting as watching someone else play a video game.
Though I have to say, many of the individual shots in the movie are visually stunning. There are a lot of amazing designs in this movie that could easily make for a great coffee table book or proudly displayed on any geeky art fan’s wall. The cinematography is pretty incredible too, and I’d have to say the combination of the two makes this movie a lot more bearable to watch.
All of the fight scenes are set to new covers of songs from bands like the Beatles, Jefferson Airplane, and the Eurythmics (the last one sung by Browning herself), and they’re surprisingly not bad. Personally, I’m wondering if the battle scenes would have come off as less overbearing with a classier, more orchestral score, but the soundtrack is a definite selling point here.
Despite the few good elements of the film, the story is so out there that it’s easy to get confused. By that, I don’t mean the story is hard to comprehend, as I think anyone in its target audience will understand the basic elements. But it’s filled with enough strange and awkward moments that you really have no idea what the point of it all is, or why the story was told this way.
You might think Babydoll is retreating to fantasy worlds to better cope with her situation in the mental institution, but if that’s the goal, why would she come up with a fantasy of sexual slavery that’s arguably even worse than her reality? Or is she just nuts and having major hallucinations? And in either case, why would a young girl in the 1960s be visualizing robots and samurai warriors and orcs and alien planets in the first place? Could it be she’s actually visiting parallel universes, after all? The existence of four animated shorts that explain the backstory of each fantasy world certainly backs up the possibility, along with the fact that Babydoll sees the Wise Man in her fantasies even though she never actually meets him in real life.
And the strangest part is that even though the whole movie is about Babydoll learning how to fight for her freedom, we find out at the end that we were somehow mistaken, and the movie was really about Babydoll learning to fight for Sweet Pea’s freedom all along.
Clearly, Sucker Punch is trying to put forth some sort of message. If Zack Snyder wanted to make a movie that was about nothing more than sexy women fighting dragons, he could have easily done so. The movie is obviously trying to be something more, but its message is mostly buried under overbaked visuals, uneven performances, and sparkling dialogue like “Don’t write checks with your mouth that you can’t cash with your ass.”
Of course, the overwhelmingly negative reviews have led a vocal minority to declare Sucker Punch a misunderstood masterpiece with profound things to say about authority and feminism and conformity and the patriarchy and objectification and so on. While the film is entertaining enough, and not nearly as bad as the reviews indicate, I think the hardcore Sucker Punch fans are giving the film and its director way too much credit, especially considering how Snyder would completely mishandle Superman just a couple of years later.
What Snyder has given us in Sucker Punch is a half-baked message about how its target male audience should be ashamed of itself for enjoying this kind of blatant fan-service (apparently, that’s the “sucker punch” of the title), while also trying to get across another half-baked message about how girls can be (in Snyder’s own words) “empowered by their sexuality and not exploited”. But it really doesn’t go much deeper than that, and I’m pretty sure even those simple messages flew right over the heads of the teenage boys this movie was evidently made for.
Sucker Punch tries to take aim at misogyny, and yet still wants to us to be entertained and enthralled by women being terrorized, abused, locked up as sex slaves, and forced to fight robots in lingerie. It’s a bit of a mixed message. If this movie truly was “misunderstood” (which I doubt), then the fault for that lies squarely with its director, not its intended audience.
[—This review contains additional material by Dr. Winston O’Boogie.]