After dabbling in remakes (2004’s Dawn of the Dead) and adaptations (300, Watchmen, Legend of the Guardians), director Zack Snyder finally stepped up to the challenge of conceiving an original project to test his capabilities. The result is 2011’s Sucker Punch; a polarising cinematic experience which foundered at the box office and endured a vicious critical reception. For his first original undertaking, writer-director Snyder dreamed up a candy-coloured fantasy dreamscape with traces of fantasy, steampunk, sci-fi, ninja, pin-up, manga and horror iconography within the narrative structure of a Zelda video game. Not to mention, the leads are a bunch of scantily-clad women carrying badass machine guns, and thus the film additionally represents a teenage boy’s fantasy. At first glance, then, it is perhaps tempting to dismiss Sucker Punch as a cynical attempt to appeal to as many fanboy demographics as possible. Yet, Snyder had loftier intentions; crafting a visually stunning piece of action filmmaking with profound intricacies under its surface. Sucker Punch is a depressing, bleak critique of the sexualisation of women in modern cinema (and in real life), and Snyder employed a number of those clichés in a satirical fashion to tell the story.
At the centre of Sucker Punch is the youthful Baby Doll (Browning), who’s sent to a mental asylum by her wicked stepfather (Plunkett) following the tragic deaths of both her mother and sister. Alas, the evil of her new surroundings further disturbs her shattered psyche, and she becomes scheduled for a lobotomy in five days. Hoping to plot an escape, Baby Doll befriends fellow crazies Sweet Pea (Cornish), Rocket (Malone), Amber (Chung) and Blondie (Hudgens). Soon, she learns that she will need five items to assist in her escape from the institution and thus the sinister clutches of caretaker Blue (Isaac). The girls’ adventures are manifested in two imaginary (or are they?) dream-worlds: a 1920s-style brothel where the girls regress to get away the troubles of their everyday lives, and a fantastical dream-within-a-dream world where the girls are a squad of badass lady soldiers.
Zack Snyder is a great action filmmaker, and he makes every frame look like a painting in an era where most action directors intensely dislike such words as “tripod” and “composition”. There are a lot of visually stunning moments of ass-kicking awesomeness to behold here – if you come to Sucker Punch seeking action and eye candy, the film delivers in spades. The production design and visual effects are terrific, and significantly contribute to the film’s high enjoyment value. Also, the costumes for the females are everything that a heterosexual male could ask for. Meanwhile, to the credit of director Snyder, blood and gore was eschewed creatively during the fantasy sequences; making the film violent and badass without pulling punches. On top of this, the soundtrack is impeccable – the original music is pulse-pounding and energising, while the cover songs of various tunes suit the style and atmosphere beautifully. In particular, the dialogue-free opening sequence is a tour de force of visual storytelling which is accompanied by a beautiful rendition of Sweet Dreams Are Made Of This (performed by Emily Browning, who plays Baby Doll).
Sucker Punch blends fantasy in a reality in such a mind-twisting fashion that it’s hard to distinguish what’s real and what’s imaginary. With subtle intricacies scattered throughout the movie, there are a lot of things open for interpretation, including the masterful ending. However, the big problem with Sucker Punch is that the action sequences do not always fit properly. The film carries a substantial subtext, but there’s no paralleling in the action scenes. To illustrate this point, consider when Baby Doll dances while one of the girls sneaks off to photocopy a map – the fantasy scenario for this depicts the girls fighting German zombies in trenches. Cool to look at, sure, but how does covertly photocopying a map have anything to do with trench warfare and World War I? Where’s the paralleling? Another misstep is that Snyder always shows the action scenes in place of Baby Doll’s sexy dancing that everyone seems to adore. Added to this, Sucker Punch was edited down to attain a PG-13 rating from the MPAA, and this affects the entire production – at certain moments the film is blatantly censored, and the movie feels underdone to the point of feeling fundamentally incomplete.
As for the acting, the female leads carried out what they were required to do: look hot, be athletic in the battle scenes, and deliver their dialogue in an adequate enough fashion. If any of the actors shines, it’s Scott Glenn who plays the girls’ veteran, hard-ass para-military leader. Glenn’s role may be heavily clichéd, but he delivered the clichés with relish.
It is the ultimate definition of irony that Sucker Punch is enduring criticism for being something that it is in fact critiquing and satirising. Scott Mendelson said it best: “At heart, it’s a critical deconstruction of the casual sexualization of young women in pop culture, the inexplicable acceptance of institutional sexism and lechery, and whether or not images of empowered females on film can be disassociated with the sexual undercurrent of those same images“. Heck, during one particular interview, Snyder discussed why he chose such costumes for the girls: “Someone asked me, why did you dress the girls like that? And I said, I didn’t dress them that way, you did. That’s what pop culture demands, not me. And that’s fun for me – I love that when confronted with the exact formula that they request, they get all freaked out by it, because they’re like, “wait a minute – he’s right. I do like this, and maybe that’s my fault.”” With the thoughtful subtext in mind – as crazy as it may sound – I believe Sucker Punch may end up being studied in film classes right alongside Terry Gilliam’s Brazil. There are indeed multiple layers of this film to be explored in spite of its shortcomings.
Sucker Punch‘s detractors will probably believe I’m reading too much into what is essentially a teenage male’s wet dream, but I believe that they are not reading enough – instead of bothering to look past the special effects, people are accusing the film of being all style no substance. It’s fine if you “get” the film but believe Snyder simply failed in his intentions, but those unable or unwilling to look below the surface are the ones who deserve derisive scorn. After all, it is ironic that critics are complaining about the lack of intelligent, challenging mainstream movies only to have one such movie go completely over their head. Sucker Punch could have been a better film overall – the dialogue could be improved, the characters are rather shallow, and the themes could have been better explored – but it remains an enjoyable action-fantasy with intelligence and relevance.
Brief Word About The Extended Cut: The extended cut restores almost 20 minutes of excised footage, and the restoration of these minutes is to the film’s benefit. In extended form, Sucker Punch simply feels more complete. It’s easily superior to the theatrical cut.