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Monday, April 4, 2011

Sucker Punch Movie Review: God of War Meets Showgirls

I usually don't talk about movies on this blog, but given how terrible this movie was both as a Geek Culture film and a case of representations, I'm making an exception.

Sucker Punch, directed by Zack Snyder, is the kind of movie that makes people cringe when they hear the word "Deconstruction". It's the sort of screenplay (also written in part by Snyder) that you would expect from a college freshman who was just given academic permission to incorporate sex into his stories. I saw it because it looked so drastically different from usual Hollywood fantasy fare that I felt compelled to see it, especially when I heard about the madness angle. I admit I wasn't expecting much, but I wasn't expecting something that made the Twilight movies look like a class act.

The story uses the "dream within a dream" device, taking place on three planes of existence. The heroine is a girl called only Baby-Doll (played by Emily Browning), who is institutionalized after she tries to kill her rapist stepfather (and ends up shooting her little sister by mistake). Abused in the asylum and threatened with a lobotomy, she creates a fantasy world where she's a prostitute at a brothel. At the brothel, Baby-Doll teams up with similarly-named prostitutes Sweet Pea (Abbie Cornish), Amber (Jamie Chung), Blondie (Vanessa Hudgens), and Rocket (Jena Malone) to formulate an escape before they're sold off to the "High Roller" (played by Jon "Don Draper" Hamm, who has kind of ruined Mad Men for me thanks to his association with this POS). Their escape plan hinges on Baby-Doll distracting clients with her dance, where she slips into the the third level of the dream-- a fantasy adventure where the girls wear leather and battle monstrous foes.

This all takes place in the 1950's (which has become a safe period for movies dealing with cultural repression), and even the action scenes draw on a variety of anachronisms. Those scenes, the scenes which are used in almost all of the marketing, have the girls follow video-game style mission objectives as they fight samurai, zombie nazis, orcs, and robots. If pirates and Chuck Norris were involved, this would offer a complete set of internet shorthands for cool. These scenes are reasonably entertaining, though the fact that the cinematography is borrowed so heavily from video games holds them back. They're moments that would be fun if you were controlling the girls, but are so devoid of narrative weight that they're useless when simply watched. Even cutscene-heavy video games ideally leave the action to the playable parts, and leave the footage for character development-- Metal Gear Solid being the best example, as that game's cutscenes often have a subdued tone and several layers of meaning.

The real problem with the story is the "real world", especially filtered through the intermediary that is the brothel world. The characters have little to no personality; Amber and Blondie are near-complete ciphers, and the only traits seen in Sweet Pea and Rocket are that they're big sister and little sister. Baby Doll may be the protagonist, but her reactions don't go any further than the situations-- she hates her captors, wants to help her fellow inmates/prostitutes/action heroines, and doesn't like being raped. The emotional range portrayed by all the girls ranges from "angry at rapists" to "crying over having been raped", with occasional moments of sisterly solidarity between them. Most writing teachers will tell you that tears should be saved for a character's greatest trials, because if you use the waterworks too much, you run the risk of sappy melodrama. When dealing with a concept as horrific as rape, sappy melodrama is the last thing you want, but it's here in spades.

The fact that the real world is the mental hospital is what really sinks the movie for me, because physical/sexual abuse of mental patients IS a real problem, and it doesn't just happen to those with movie starlet looks. And while the elaborate fantasy sequences of Baby-Doll may be what give her strength to stick to the escape plan, they aren't the sort of fantasies her character (such as it is). While this is allegedly set in the 1950s, the brothel and the video game sequences are clearly motivated by the male gaze-- even when fighting orcs and Nazis instead of pimps and johns, the girls wear skimpy fetish gear and use symbolically phallic weaponry (big guns, big swords, big mechs). Snyder has said that this is his commentary on the nature of fantasy, that it's "girls performing for men in the dark". Except that he's doing a movie with female stars, so the girls should be able to behave as the subjects, not the objects. In a bizarre way, the film catastrophically fails the Bechdel Test, because while all the protagonists are female, all their dialogue is talking about the males (even if the males are the bad guys).

Snyder has taken the language of comic books, video games, and other geek culture paraphernalia, but he hasn't given us any substance with it. His observations about voyeurism and rape as a means of asserting dominance are the kind that can be found in any Media Studies 101 class. The rest is, as Chris Rosa told me prior to seeing this movie, like a Hollywood executive's superficial understanding of the San Diego ComiCon floor show, used as an attempt to make a deep statement with a very shallow thought process.

The only way I would recommend you see this is if you were watching for the purposes of doing an insulting review a la the Nostalgia Critic. Because this kind of story, a story with big ambitions but lazy craft, is the perfect target for such derision.


  1. What I'm curious is why Snyder felt the need to depict the heroes as prostitutes. It's one thing to make your heroine a hot ass-kicker, since writers ranging from Joss Whedon on out have been doing it for years, but where does the prostitution angle fit into it? What, exactly, does it add to the theme or the characters?

    I'm also baffled as to why Frank Miller depicted things the way he did in Sin City or Batman: Year One, for much the same reasons.

  2. Hey, thanks for reviewing "Sucker Punch," NTB. I was excited when I first heard about it --- its concept, girls escaping violently and stylishly from a mental institution, appealed to me --- but later on the sexualization aspect started to bother me.

    I read a short interview with Zack Snyder about the movie wherein he made some sort of nauseating comment about the girls' sexuality *being* power --- and that that was why he made them be prostitutes! Exploitation is power now, I guess ... and freedom is slavery, ignorance strength, etc.

    (I also had profoundly mixed feelings on discovering that all the action in the movie took place inside the girls' heads --- that they never actually escape from anything. That could be powerful, and could be made to work well dramatically, but I also think it might just be unbearably sad. I also agree that setting it in the 1950s is a bit of a "but of course this could never happen nowadays!" cop-out).

    I'm still probably going to see it, on video if not in theaters.

  3. I find reviewers to almost never give credit where credit is due in the scifi/fantasy genre unless there is an anti-war/violence obvious message to the movie.