March 31, 2011

Ambitious Sucker Punch Unable to Execute

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One of the few benefits of reviewing a film nearly a week after most other critics have, is that it affords you the opportunity to see what some of your peers are saying about it. In the case of Sucker Punch, that would be mostly negative things. And yet, I stand prepared to defend director Zack Snyder and the film itself. Because Sucker Punch, while wildly uneven, was more original than just about anything I’ve seen in the past few years. It defied conventions and diverged greatly from what I had expected it to be, which upon reflection made me appreciate it even more.

The film opens with a prologue of sorts, in which Baby Doll (Emily Browning) attends the funeral of her mother, narrowly avoids being raped by her stepfather and is inadvertently involved in the murder of her younger sister. Shot in black and white, and without dialogue, it is a morose way to begin an “action movie,” for sure. But, by doing so, Snyder makes it clear that this film isn’t going to be your typical “action movie.”

Immediately after the death of her sister, Baby Doll is confined to the Lennox House for the Mentally Insane, where her stepfather has paid orderly Blue Jones (Oscar Isaac) to ensure she is lobotomized by week’s end. With her days numbered, Baby Doll retreats into a dream world where she’s an orphan, the asylum is a brothel, and the doctor coming to lobotomize her is a high roller coming to take her virginity. Snyder never makes it clear why Baby would place herself in a brothel. Sure, brothels were opulent in the 1950s, but prostitution has never been a glamorous profession.

Therein lies the first real problem with Sucker Punch. While Snyder goes out of his way to make the dream world brighter than reality, there is never a clear denotation as to when we shift from the asylum to the brothel. He also fails to establish what Baby’s compatriots are like in reality, which means they could very well be mentally deranged women, and we wouldn’t know.

Even in the dream world, the other girls are thinly developed. There’s Amber (Jamie Chung), the pilot of the group, who helps navigate the women through the various dream worlds; the impulsive Rocket (Jenna Malone), her strong-willed older sister Sweet Pea (Abbie Cornish), and Blondie (Vanessa Hudgens), who has no discernable character traits. Like Baby, they too feel oppressed by Blue (a pimp in the dream world), and thus decide to take part in the jail break. In order to break out, Baby realizes that she will need to dance for men at the brothel, creating a distraction that will allow the other girls time to collect the items needed to escape.

Rather than show us Baby’s mesmerizing dance, Snyder takes us deeper into the recesses of her mind, where the girls are actually an elite squad of warriors fending off zombies, dragons and robots. These worlds, each more fantastical than the last, are all brilliantly executed by Synder. But, as HitFix’s Drew McWeeny astutely pointed out in his review, it’s tough to “make sense of what is logistically happening in the real world during those dreams, and as a result … the imagery doesn’t make sense.”

The threat of being lobotomized should have been the driving force that compelled Baby forward but, because we spend so little time in the “real world,” said threat is largely forgotten until the film’s conclusion. With each new world we enter, the stakes are constantly being shifted, which makes it difficult to have a vested interest in the girls’ quest.

Still, with Sucker Punch, Snyder has created a truly fascinating epic that is quite possibly the first of its kind. When Scott Pilgrim VS. The World was released last August, many hailed it as the first film for the videogame generation. I, however, would reason that title belongs to Sucker Punch. Pilgrim may have been a film for gamers but Sucker Punch is a film indebted to the sensibilities of the gaming generation. By which, I mean that the scenery is always changing, and the narrative becomes more about completing certain challenges than telling a cohesive story.

Bottom line: If you have an appreciation for original (albeit muddled) storytelling, pretty girls, crazy action sequences and/or revolutionary special effects, go see Sucker Punch in a theater.

Original Author: Wesley Ambrecht