Thursday, March 31, 2011

Movie Review: Sucker Punch

Suckered Into a Film But Not The Punch

"At its sincerest essence, Sucker Punch is a film mightily heavy on stylization, but morbidly bear on substance."

      Zack Snyder's latest cinematic exploit (no pun intended) has been met with a furious onslaught of sneering criticism. The question I had to reconcile in my head, to avoid any damning preexisting bias, is can an awareness of negative expectations severely impact an unfettered viewing of a film? The answer is, of course, a resounding yes, but in my case only slightly.
      In order to accomplish this difficult feat, one must avoid, at all peril, any comprehensive review. Inevitably, I was acutely aware of the vitriolic disdain for Snyder's film, but I was not privy to the reasons for this disdain. Therefore, I was successfully able to walk into the theater unencumbered by any caustic criticism.
      Unfortunately, as much as I would like to endlessly laud Snyder's latest film (so as to ignite a viral firestorm and gain greater online exposure for my site, hehe), sadly I cannot. Despite the fact that a glowing review would be deemed such an unconscionable and audacious move, inevitably met by legions of curious filmgoers wondering how the heck I could have awarded this film a 9 out of 10; oh the outcry...strip him of his critic license. Of course, at my own dismay, these castigations would all be fair. But alas, I cannot. Regrettably, I am very much in agreement with the overall recusant tone (though not the sharp antagonism) of critics who have unconditionally derided Snyder's film.
      Sucker Punch is, at its fundamental core, strictly mindless entertainment. I've never had the fortunate opportunity to interview Zack Snyder, but my presumption, is that he is perfectly fine with this decree. Given his track record, it doesn't seem practical for Snyder to convey an "empowering feminist" message, or even more broadly, attempt to proselytize his predominantly young male audience, by juxtaposing cultural phenomena and gender inequalities. Judging purely from the context of the film, it seems abundantly clear that Snyder was merely looking to construct a largely fantastical pop culture mash-up, which masquerades as exploitation. This conjecture is measurably consistent with the film's feverish marketing campaign, which featured scantily clad women wielding Transformer-size weapons—I'm sure Michael Bay was studiously taking notes. 
      Although, I'm not going to aggressively adopt the largely antipathetic stance of many a critic, nonetheless, I am still deeply disappointed by the film's preponderance of inexcusable flaws. In its totality, Sucker Punch is marred by a wretched incongruity, and an indistinguishable overindulgence. Snyder's visual bravura reaches its apex in this wildly imaginative action-fantasy, but it is terminally absent of any sustainable fertility. This may be Snyder's first movie not based on pre-existing material, and perhaps, this is the reason for its calamitous composition.

      Reminiscent of the Watchmen opening, we are forcibly thrust into Snyder's universe with an unspoken, and resonant musical montage. The first gaze at our heroine, and predominant protagonist Baby Doll (played by Emily Browning with a searing and implicit evocation), quickly paints a picture of an unrelenting woman hellbent on revenge. Baby Doll is committed to a grimy mental institution (the Lennox House, which commands a strict hot chicks only policy) by her brutal stepfather (Gerard Plunkett) after the ghastly and lascivious old man attempts to "rape" her younger sister. Instead, she winds up accidentally killing her sister, and without any moral prejudice, her stepfather sends her away. The purpose of her entering this abominable institution is to get lobotomized (following the wishes of her stepfather against her own will), which ensures she loses her most recent memory. 
      Once inside this outwardly deplorable facility, "for the mentally insane" no less, we are introduced to the loathsome supervisor Blue (churlishly played by Oscar Isaac), who takes Baby Doll to the common area, which features an ominous looking stage known as the Theater.
      It is from this "theater of the mind" backdrop where most of the story unfolds. The imaginative heart of Snyder's intemperate world of fantasy is elucidated through a variation of salacious stage proceedings. And quite regrettably, this core element of the film is handled with such an unmistakable clumsiness. In Snyder's fantasy world, not antithetical to Nolan's Inception (only in theory though, not execution), the mind affords people the power to shape their own destiny. However, Snyder's self-reflexive instincts are obtuse and sluggish, and his subsequent trip down the fantasies-within-fantasies realm, primarily speaks to his disorientation over notions of effectuation and empowerment, not to mention a deafening discontinuity.
      Baby Doll slips through a series of, what can only be termed, mental escapes. The hospital operates as a brothel, in which its exacting chief psychologist (played with a thick accent by the sultry Carla Gugino), inhabits the role of madam and ballet instructor, while the sadistic supervisor Oscar, morphs into a pimp by the fashionable name of Blue Jones. Instructed to dance for clients, Baby Doll slips into a trance and passes, along with four of her fellow inmates, into a digitally rendered vortex of sword fights, aerial battles and Bay explosions. These incessant sequences of extreme mayhem may be dressed in a kinetic and ornate fabric, but they're almost entirely void of any tension, gracefulness or shrewd visual adornment. The movie progresses quite monotonously. Baby Doll and company tread along in visually stunning environments, engaging in elaborate battles consistent with any modern video game, in which the crinkly faced guru (played by Scott Glenn of Scott Pilgrim fame), provides the tedious instructions.

      Baby Doll plans her heroic escape from this malignant house of burlesque and prostitution by enlisting the help of her four similarly sexualized inmates—Rocket (a fine performance from Jena Malone), Sweet Pea (a resolute performance from Abbie Cornish), Blondie (a predictably expendable performance from the sexy Vanessa Hudgens), and Amber (a touching performance by Jamie Chung). At this juncture, Snyder's cinematic video game prototype begins to more deliberately embody elements of past films, particularly Kill Bill and Shutter Island, but its striking inability to seamlessly marry these disparate components, proves to be its greatest downfall. As Baby Doll regularly retreats into virtual worlds of extravagant sword fights, rich aerial battles and trademark Bay explosions, the film markedly loses credence. Regrettably, there is no unifying force tying these divergent elements together or, at the very least, providing any necessary exposition for the intricate workings of these imaginative fantasies—which Inception wonderfully does. In these apocalyptic landscapes of airships, fortresses, samurai blades, and badass firearms, the characters imbue cartoonish traits. Suspiciously impervious, Snyder barrels forward from this narrative inconsistency, for his sole objective, it seems, is merely to unleash his signature style: a smattering of hyperactive slo-mo's, a vast array of diverse large-scale environments, and a litany of big battle sequences.
      Unlike any conventional action film (which under different circumstances, I'd probably feel compelled to praise given the film's unique disposition), Sucker Punch fails to coalesce any of the integral elements of action storytelling 101: there's barely any meaningful character development, there are no objectives, and there are no consequences or stakes (at least until the very end). Ironically, in the area of substance, Sucker Punch is a bloodless, porous, insubstantial mess, dynamically composed with big masturbatory action set pieces. Even from an underlying guise of its external shell—a film that revolves around badass chicks revolting against uniformly bad guys—Sucker Punch never properly posits the idea of female sexuality overcoming recalcitrant power. It's a colorful array of style with potential for empowerment, but ultimately, it is erased by the denial of any narrative purposefulness.
      Snyder's conception of his heroines—who are asked to do little more than frown, flaunt, and stare fiercely—is nonsensical. Consistent with the story's adversaries, his film reduces these feminine fighters  to mere objects of carnal desire. Rather than take a stand against sexism or exploitation—given the female characters enormous physical prowess and tenacity, Sucker Punch sits calmly as another jumbled manifestation of disjointed male desires. Any pretense of feminist liberation is wholly disingenuous. Instead, Snyder mistakenly fosters another emphatic incarnation that aggressively appeals to teenage boys wet-dream fantasies.

      All this mumbo jumbo talk begs the question. Is Snyder's film grossly misunderstood? Does he or anyone for that matter even care? For all its overt exploitative self-awareness, Sucker Punch may, in fact, be a brilliant examination of today's cultural landscape, which makes Snyder's film an effective study of the tools, goals and effects of propaganda—masquerading as an action-fantasy. My suspicion, much more likely, however, is Snyder just doesn't care. Judging from its trailers, the film delivers on its premise; over-the-top action fantasy. At its profoundest core—mindless entertainment—Snyder is not trying to evoke deep emotional or philosophical thought.
      Finally, I just want to address some of the scornful and animus ridicule surrounding Sucker Punch. For one, it is NOT one of the worst films ever made, or even an atrocious crime against the senses, as has been widely and hastily articulated. From its broadest foundation, Sucker Punch is commensurate with synergistic art. Unfortunately though, it is composed in such a garbled and disjointed manner. Perhaps, Snyder just could not seamlessly mold these disparate layers—the institutional reality, the brothel reality, and the re imagined fantasy worlds—into a cohesive unit. But I can't really blame him because not everyone is as technically skilled as Christopher Nolan. Moreover, the disastrous plot incoherence does not mean Sucker Punch deserves to be thrown in Shosanna's Cinema with all the other extremely flammable nitrate films during Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds.That's a more inexcusable perpetration of crime than Snyder's own narrative folly.
      The lasting impression of the film is quite visceral: "hey, look at what I can do. Isn't this cool." Not much of a story (or maybe just a story run amok), but rather, a battering of dazzling artistry—you know, just like any video game. Hopefully, everyone that goes to see it will pass through each level, and at least, appreciate the depths of its exhilarating visual grandeur. At its sincerest essence, Sucker Punch is a film mightily heavy on stylization, but morbidly bear on substance.

5 out of 10

*If you haven't been trapped on a desert island, then you know this film just came out. The above video is the Official Trailer for Sucker Punch. 


  1. I saw it last night, and while it wasn't as spectacular as I expected, I enjoyed it for what it was. I agree, it wasn't atrocious, but I felt like Snyder has lost in his own imagination :) The robo-samurai sequence was absolutely perfect though... I could watch it over and over again.. those unusual camera angles and stunning slow-mo blew me away. However, it got weaker towards the end. Arguably Snyder's weakest, but still decent and visually-stylish.

  2. I agree (and love that you used a Tarantino❤ reference ) that it isn't one of the worst movies ever made. Even though the story lacked in substance the visuals were simply amazing. I personally have very little praise for this film but I can agree that being a Snyder film I did get what I expected to be great and that is the action and visuals. If it didn't have that then okay yeah it might be fair to consider it to be one of the worst. I wish they gave Jamie Chung and Vanessa Hudgens more screen time though. I was excited to see them in this and they were hardly represented. Great Review!

  3. That's a very well written review, my friend.
    I can't agree more with you. Even it looks great and has some good action sequences, but I'm gonna say that the film was so incoherent and the majority of it had so little to do with the start and ending of the film that if you left the theatre and walked back in at different parts of it you would think it was an entirely different film each time just casting the same actors and actresses.

  4. Nice review, Matty!
    Unlike you, I've seen mostly positive criticism on the film. Everybody admits the story was weak (which nobody can complain about, since we know Snyder works like that always) but that they've enjoyed the film generally.
    Fanboys will always hate Snyder because they are jealous of his unique, breathtaking and groundbreaking visual style which their favourite director don't have :)

  5. @ Nebular

    That sequence was riveting. Great reference! Snyder always brings his visual bravado, and that is a unique set of skills. I agree. It is his worst film, in terms of story.

    @ Nicole

    Tarantino's the man! Yeah, I agree. If you like Snyder's past work. at the very least, you can appreciate his immense visual style. A lot of the actresses were grossly underwritten and underdeveloped, which is another problem with the film.


  6. @ Jaccstev


    Exactly. There was no seamless narrative flow. Everything seemed completely divergent. The visuals were incredible, but the simplest elements of the story were atrocious.

    @ Dezmond


    That's interesting because pretty much all the criticism I've seen on this film has been overwhelmingly negative. A few guys gave it a 0 out of 5, which I think is completely unjustifiable and more over-the-top than Snyder's story.

    Yup! His style and expertise behind the camera is certainly terrific. If only, he could translate that skill to his story, then we'd be witnesses to an instant classic. The jury is still out for him, so we'll eagerly await The Man of Steel.

  7. I have not seen this film, but I knew right from the trailers it was going to be a fan boy's wet dream. That seems to be the prevailing wind. No story, all visual f/x and plenty of eye candy. I enjoy a good shallow film and that's all I'm expecting.

    Thorough assessment without all the bullshit.

  8. I enjoyed it. What I saw was a great PG-13 addition to the overly violent and sexual "graphic novel adaptation" genre. The steam-punk zombies were a refreshing and creative alternative to the normal blood and gore-drenched route that most filmmakers take. The choreography and shooting style communicated the violence without having to spray blood all over the screen.

    I read that initial scene differently than the reviewer. It looked to me as though when Babydoll decided at the last second to pull her aim to the right of her step-father that the bullet struck the light fixture and that her sister was hit by the ricochet.

    As for character development, I think we got all we needed. I feel like I had a really good sense of what each character was about through the use of dialog, costume and their actions. The story took place over the course of five days with the action being driven by a character that no one knew and didn't have time to get to know. Within the context of the story and genre, the lack of ten minute "getting to know each other" dialog sequences makes sense to me.

    I really don't get all of the hate that this movie is receiving. It's not my favorite representation of the genre, but I had a great time during the movie. Everyone I personally know that has seen it has enjoyed it. We must reside in a strange little bubble!

  9. @ Melissa

    Thanks! Your presumption is right on the money.

    @ Geoff

    Thanks for sharing your well-thought out observations!

    I enjoyed the film as well. It was sufficient entertainment, which is mainly owed to Snyder's wonderful visual flare. All the theatrical beats consistent with any other Snyder flick were all emphatically present. On a purely aesthetic level, it was almost like 300 for females.

    That first scene was an accident. I agree. I should have communicated that more clearly.

    The character development was sufficient, in terms of enjoyment. But as far as narrative totality or meaningful emotional investment, it was thoroughly lacking. The film's timeline is not a justifiable excuse. I mean Spike Lee's 25th Hour took place over the span of one day, and the character development was exceptional.

    I don't get the enormous haterade either. Apparently, people just like to bandwagon the hate parade, so as to not stray from the consesus norm. It was, by no means, a film you want to feature in your graduate film studies class, but it was wholly enjoyable. Haters always gonna hate.

  10. Excellent review! I'm pretty sure this review has more narrative cohesiveness than the entirety of Sucker Punch. You really hit the nail on the head with the whole Acting 101 bit--it COULD have been a cool, mindless action movie, but somehow Snyder couldn't even bring himself to do that much! And "hey, look at what I can do. Isn't this cool" is probably the most accurate one line description of this movie ever. It was fun at times, but overall disappointing. I agree--not the worst movie ever made, and critics slander it a bit too hard--but definitely a bit of a slap in the face to audiences who were expecting to so much more. As always, excellent review!

  11. Thanks, lol!!

    I think Snyder just needs to rely upon "source material," ya know, adaptations. His mind is highly visual and stylistic, which I don't think translates well to narrative development.

    And yes, it is fun, plain and simple. Many critics were much too harsh, but I guess like you said, that's probably owed to the fact that expectations were very high.