Sucker Punch

2011, 110 minutes, Action, U.S.; Directed by Zack Snyder; Produced by Deborah Snyder, Zack Snyder; Legendary Pictures, Cruel and Unusual Films; Dist. by Warner Brothers

Usually good and solid films, even ones that are considered “intelligent” or “intellectual” in nature, are presented in the fashion that even someone with the I. Q. level of a third grader can understand what’s going on. I’m not discussing a third grader’s level of experience, as there are a lot of situations presented in some films that a third grader would have never had the opportunity to know about. But a third grader could understand the way it’s being presented.

For example, if a film shows a shot of the outside of a large mansion, then cuts to another shot of a large group of people sitting at a long dinner table, it’s suggested that the large group of people sitting at the table are also inside of the large mansion. This technique has become a common tongue in the language of film is used naturally all of the time in modern filmmaking to present all sorts of situation in a fashion where everyone would be able to understand what’s going on.

For better or for worse, Zack Snyder attempts to push those boundaries of editorial story-telling in his film Sucker Punch, a film about a girl trying to escape from the confines of a mental institute where other perfectly sane girls are commonly given in the care of and lobotomized in order keep them out of the way of those who don’t mean well in society.

The film starts with an odd visual cue. It opens up with the opening studio logos printed on two stage curtains lifting up to reveal a 20-year-old platinum blonde girl sitting on her bed. One would naturally assume that this means what follows is merely a stage production and not the actual film. But seeing as how when the girl runs off stage she only seems to go into the rest of the set, I could only assume that this is actually the rest of the film, and that the curtains were simply a clever way to bring the audience into the film. (Hey, if the film wants to break the fourth wall in the first 30 seconds, that’s fine with me.)

The movie goes on to tell the story of how the girl’s mother was killed by the step-father in order to get the inheritance. But when the two daughters are given the inheritance instead, the step-father proceeds to try to kill the daughters. In an attempt to save the younger daughter, the older blonde girl, “Babydoll, ”  accidentally kills her younger brunette sister. The police to come in and completely misread the situation. The girl is placed in a mental institute for going mad and killing her younger sister and attempting to kill the “innocent” step-father. (A set-up typical for Hitchcock’s beginning films, but is actually a step up from Snyder’s earlier film 300.)

Babydoll (Emily Browning, center left) and the theater director Madame Vera Gorski (Carla Gugino, center right) in the gentleman's club world.

From here the story gets complicated. There’s a small stage theater that’s in the institute that the staff psychiatrist believes would help the girls learn to cope with society. As the blonde girl goes in for her lobotomy the film seems to jump to an alternate reality starting from the institute’s stage, where the butler is a catholic priest, the head of the institute is a theater producer, the psychiatrist is a theater director, the blonde girl is named “Babydoll”, and the girls seem to be in this strange gentleman’s club concentration camp. At least, a gentleman’s club concentration camp is what it seems to be. The film really never actually explains what this place is in the alternate reality, except that guys with money like to come in and watch the women dance, and if the girls try to escape they’re shot on site. It’s not necessarily a sex slave business, as most of the clients are just there to look. It just seems like a gentleman’s club concentration camp.

The film makes it easy for the viewer to pick up that this alternate reality is really the dramatized thought process of the blonde girl just before her lobotomy, as if thinking in this fashion was supposed to help her cope with what she was about to do, and this is how most of the film is presented. It is now this Babydoll’s goal to escape from this gentleman’s club concentration camp before she’s picked up by a rich client as a sex slave. This is the only sex slave trade this place seems to make, as the rest of all just implied dancing.

It’s implied that Babydoll shows extreme talent in her dance, but this is where the film tries to get even more complicated. Every time Babydoll dances, another alternate reality is shown where Babydoll is fighting various battles and monsters. This is suggested by the filmmakers to be the representation of how Babydoll is feeling as she dances. Babydoll devises a plan with the other women in the Nazi gentleman’s club to steal small objects as she dances so they could escape before she’s sold off as a sex slave.

To be fair, these action scenes the film uses to interpret the dances are amazing. I still don’t consider Zack Snyder to be a “visionary” in the slightest, as he’s only been using the same “bullet-time” cinematic techniques introduced in the late 90’s in films like Lost in Space and The Matrix in extremely gaudy ways that only succeeded to confuse or bore the viewer in his earlier works like 300. In Sucker Punch, Snyder seems to finally harness this technique as he dazzles the viewer with the pacing of the cinematography and also manages to keep the viewer oriented in the battle scenes themselves.

But, also to be fair, I really doubt this is what goes in the head of many women as they dance. In fact, it seems like where the mind of a 18 – 35 year old male wanders to when he’s forced by his mother, girlfriend, or wife to sit through “The Nutcracker” every year. (Coincidentally, the film was marketed mainly to males 18 – 35 years of age.) The action scenes themselves only serve to objectify the women as sexy action figures in a rather male-oriented fashion and don’t do well to symbolize Babydoll’s desire to run away from being sexually objectified by other men. The essence of these action scenes would actually work better as the imagination of the male clients as they watch Babydoll dance, as it fits perfectly with most men’s idolization of women. But instead the filmmaker tries to force these concepts down the mind of Babydoll simply because she’s supposed to be the film’s protagonist.

And while Zack Snyder managed to use his “bullet-time” fetish in the action scenes in a way that actually supplements the film rather than distracts from it, the cinematography depicting the gentleman’s club is oddly disorienting, despite the cinematography being relatively simple compared to the “bullet-time” techniques in the action scenes. Even though the camera is right there next to the characters during a scene where the angry theater producer is pointing a gun at the women plotting to escape, it’s nearly impossible to discern who he has or hasn’t shot and whether or not they’re still alive afterward.

At the end of the film, the story-telling returns to the original reality involving the mental institute introduced at the beginning of the movie to see how or if the blonde girl achieved her goals. I’ll admit, this is one of those movies where its ending should probably be left open to artistically existential interpretation. The stage curtains don’t fall as they opened in the beginning of the film, probably because the credits usually break the fourth wall enough to let the audience know that the movie is over.

I was oddly the most emotionally affected by the reality that open and closed the film, even though it would be a stretch to suggest that it was lingered upon for even 20 minutes. The rest of the movie is simply a confusing mess of alternate realities, one of which isn’t explored to its fullest, and the other simply appears to be a dazzling array of Japanese animation inspired live-action films the director would rather be making. As a result, most of the film loses its sense of focus within terms of the story, as the story itself keeps being seen through a different interpretation about every 15 minutes.

Sucker Punch would have done better to pick a story and a universe, and stick with it. Trying to thread these dramatic and action realities with a half-baked intermediate involving an odd gentleman’s club that’s never completely realized really doesn’t do anything to make the film appear more intelligent. And if the filmmakers still wanted to thread the mental institute with the action universes, the intermediate universe could have easily been cut out in favor of developing both worlds, rather than interrupting both worlds that desperately needed development with an intermediate world that doesn’t even begin to make sense. I wouldn’t consider this such a big deal, except it takes up most of the movie, and the real head of the mental institute looks like he might be a much more interesting character than what he was painted to be as the theater producer.

A scene from "Sucker Punch" depicts a WWII bomber that seems to come from "Flyboys" attacking a set that seems to come from "Return of the King" in one of the film's many action universes.


About Stefan D. Byerley
Stefan D. Byerley is an independent filmmaker and freelance visual artist currently residing in North Carolina. He likes detailed storytelling, intriguing imagery, massive bloody violence, crying at the movies, and long walks in the park during the Autumn season.

3 Responses to Sucker Punch

  1. There’s nothing much for me to say except the more satisfying anime series Madoka Magica beats Sucker Punch in several places. :lol:

  2. belledame says:

    i got a little confused in your review… what actually happened in the opening is that the furious, drunken stepdad came upstairs to rape the little girl. the blonde sister tried to shoot him and the bullet ricocheted off the light fixture and hit the little sister instead. she drops the gun long before any cops show up. although she is immediately committed without benefit of arrest or trial.

    the club in the second reality is distinctly the front for a brothel. the girls are definitely sex slaves. rocket gives baby doll the initial tour and makes it clear that the poshly decorated bedrooms are for business only. the entire premise is that virginal baby doll will wind up in one of those rooms when “the high roller” arrives at the end of the week. while in reality, the blonde will wind up being lobotomized when the doctor arrives at the end of the week. in both cases, the high roller/doctor represent points of no return as she loses her virginity/mental competence.

    i have to think about your comments some more. teasing out the three layers certainly seemed like a bit of work. i agree that three layers may not have been necessary, but in the real world the dangerous man is only the head orderly. he doesn’t run the institution. this is clear when the doctor discovers what he’s done in the end. in the gentleman’s club he is in charge, switching roles with the naive psychiatrist, and holding power over everyone. since he is so very dangerous in the real world, maybe they just wanted to allow for a version wherein his power isn’t furtive.

    i tend to think the second vision is either a version of the skit the psychiatrist is trying to get the girls to act out OR what the still sane blonde daydreams while sitting through these excruciating sessions surrounded by these downtrodden women. in both the real world and gentleman’s club it seemed clear that babydoll was under sexual threat from the main villain. the ending and the purpose behind babydoll’s trial…that is…still pretty baffling.

    • Stefan D. Byerley says:

      I should probably note that I have not seen the extended cut of the film. From other reviews I’ve read there seems to a few elements that suggest the whole rape and violence thing from the second alternate reality. For some reason, Snyder thought it best to cut these scenes and blame it on the MPAA, even though the U.K. thought the uncensored version was fine for 12-year-olds to see, and the U.K. even feels the need to censor Dakota Fanning billboards that aren’t titillating or sexually suggestive in the slightest based upon the premise that they are slightly titillating or sexually suggestive.

      The alternate realities still feel forced to me, still have too little in common with one another, and, especially when entering various action realities, still feel as if the film itself was being the very thing it seemed to be trying to preach against: a masturbation fest brought upon by the male-inspired objectification of the female gender. I’m not saying that women should never be seen as strong action figures, but I am saying that Snyder doesn’t really know how to present a strong female character, and, seeing as this film is full of female characters, it really starts taking a toll on the movie. If the objectification of women even shows up in a film claiming in some way to be feminist, it should always lead to the deconstruction of that objectification, and not the celebration of that objectification. Sucker Punch fails in many ways to to that.

      But, thanks for the heads-up for the first half of my review. The adjustments are made.

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