Imagination is an escape for some people. There are stories of prisoners of war who would envision building a lakeside cabin while they were being tortured by their captors to maintain their sanity. Victims of abuse often create fantasy worlds to escape the pain. This week’s movie, “Sucker Punch,” tells the story of a woman who not only fantasizes about a better life, but her fantasy self also fantasizes. It’s layer upon layer of fantasy that could use a healthy dose of reality.
Twenty-year old Baby Doll (Emily Browning) has just buried her mother when her stepfather (Gerard Plunkett), angry over not being left anything in his wife’s will, decides to rape her little sister. Baby Doll grabs a gun and tries to shoot her stepfather but accidentally kills her sister. Sending her to a mental institution, Baby Doll’s stepfather pays an orderly, Blue Jones (Oscar Isaac), to forge the institution’s therapist’s signature, making sure the young woman is lobotomized and giving him full control over his late wife’s vast estate. The therapist, Dr. Vera Gorski (Carla Gugino), uses music as a way to reach past her patient’s pain and encourages Baby Doll to escape the horrors of her life within her own mind. As a doctor (Jon Hamm) is about to perform the lobotomy, Baby Doll begins to fantasize about a prison of another sort. She sees herself being held against her will in a sleazy nightclub that is a front for a brothel. Run by the shady owner Blue (Isaac), the club features beautiful women who dance for rich and powerful men. If the customers like what they see, they can purchase the company of a dancer for the evening. At the club, Baby Doll is befriended by Rocket (Jena Malone), whose older sister Sweet Pea (Abbie Cornish) is the featured dancer. Fellow dancers Blondie and Amber (Vanessa Hudgens and Jamie Chung) also become part of Baby Doll’s new family. The women are choreographed in their dance routines by Madam Gorski (Gugino) who encourages the women to feel the music in their souls and let it move them. Blue intends on selling the virginal Baby Doll to a customer known only as the High Roller (Hamm), but first she must prove she can dance. As Baby Doll becomes lost in the music, another layer of fantasy takes over. In this world, Baby Doll meets a Wise Man (Scott Glenn) who says she can escape her torment by finding five items; a map, fire, a knife, a key and a mysterious fifth item that will require great sacrifice. He gives her a sword and a gun and sends her out to face three giant samurai. After a fierce battle, she defeats all three and returns to the nightclub world to discover she has mesmerized everyone with her sensuous dance. She enlists the other girls in her quest to find the five items and escape the club and Blue. Each time she dances Baby Doll returns to the second fantasy world where she and the other four girls are an elite team of commandos who are given impossible missions against insurmountable odds by their commander, the Wise Man
“Sucker Punch” is a bizarre movie. That isn’t necessarily a criticism, just a statement of fact. It is sold in the trailers as a sci-fi/action fantasy but only because it’s easier to sell that way. In fact, the film is a kind of grim and sad tale of women exploited by powerful men and their effort to escape, even if it is into a double-layered fantasy. The movie’s moral is about empowerment and self-realization, but it is buried in an overly complicated plot structure that muddles and dilutes the message.
Visually, the movie is rather striking with writer and director Zack Snyder’s signature style of computer generated backgrounds and landscapes, washed out colors to convey emotion in some settings and over-the-top action. The commando fantasy scenes are like live-action anime. The women drop from great heights to land on their feet unharmed, the ground shattering under them as what sounds like thunder resounds from their impact. They battle hundreds of steam-driven reanimated soldiers, knights in armor, robots, monsters and even a fire-breathing dragon. Each woman is a killing machine in short skirts, bustiers and high heels because you want to feel sexy even while killing in the name of your cause or government (we are never told what the women are fighting for and each battle is set in a different time and locale). The women also dress provocatively in the night club fantasy where most of the film takes place. They always look like they’ve just stepped out of the makeup chair with glitter eye shadow and rosy cheeks; whether they are in the rehearsal studio, scrubbing the floors or working in the kitchen. The movie’s objectification of its female stars seems to be in opposition to its story of women breaking free and establishing their own identities.
If most of the audience doesn’t realize that is the story of the film, it’s understandable since it is buried under mounds of action scenes and fantasy on top of fantasy. While I admire Snyder’s willingness to construct a challenging and original narrative, this is a classic example of style over substance. The film wants to impress you with its visuals and hopes you won’t notice the stilted dialog, wooden acting and two dimensional characters.
“Sucker Punch” is rated PG 13 for thematic material involving sexuality, violence and combat sequences, and for language. There are numerous battle scenes with lots of stabbings and shootings. There is no blood or gore except for the faces of some of the soldiers. There are a couple of scenes of attempted rape. Foul language is scattered.
I’ve enjoyed some of director Zack Snyder’s work in the past. My favorite of his films is “300,” which is what I consider to be his most complete work. “Watchmen” didn’t quite work for me as it seemed too wrapped up in its own perceived importance. “Sucker Punch” is visually interesting but its story falls well short. I hope Snyder can pull all the filmmaking threads together for his next project: The reboot of Superman.
“Sucker Punch” gets two guitars.
A couple of different fantasies play out on screens this week. Vote for the next film I see and review.
Hop—An out-of-work slacker accidentally injures the Easter Bunny and must take responsibility for him as he recovers.
Source Code—Jake Gyllenhaal is part of a government experiment that enables him to cross over into the last eight minutes of another man's life.
Stan’s Choice—Stan sees and reviews any film currently in theatres.
Release dates are subject to change and not all films may be shown in Knoxville, TN.
Questions? Send them to firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow Stan on Twitter @moviemanstan.