Review: Sucker Punch (2011)

Sucker Punch is an insane, visually stunning, incomprehensible mess of a film. On a purely technical level, the film is great. Few directors know how to craft stunning, time-manipulated action sequences like Snyder. However, while the action sequences and visuals prove Snyder to be an aesthetic master, the story (Snyder’s first original effort) shows that he is no more than a journeyman storyteller when working from his own material. What little plot exists is as follows: Babydoll (Emily Browning) is sent to a mental asylum by her wicked stepfather who plans to have her lobotomized in five days. While there, Babydoll retreats into one reality – a bordello – and then another – a realm of stylistic fever dreams inspired by comic books and video games – in order to find a means of escape. But Babydoll can’t do it alone and so she recruits the other girls, Sweet Pea (Abbie Cornish), Rocket (Jena Malone), Blondie (Vanessa Hudgens), and Amber (Jamie Chung), to help her escape.

As a whole the story is melodramatic, superficial, and overstated. Many key sections where necessary character development and motivation should have been elucidated are regulated to little more than music videos set to too-obvious songs choices. However to dismiss Sucker Punch’s story as mindless misses the point. Snyder’s focus may be the action fever dreams, but he’s still trying to accomplish something with the story, not just sacrificing it to service the action sequences. Unfortunately, what Snyder is trying to do is never very articulate or earned.

Snyder intends the film to be female empowerment and a clever deconstruction of female-hysteria melodramas, but this never quite comes across properly. While I wouldn’t go as far as some denigrators and call the film sexist, the “female empowerment” is no more than sexy girls kicking ass. The characters aren’t fleshed out enough to allow us the psychological insight needed to really understand the girls, and thus, instead of deconstructions of powerless heroines, the girls merely fit the role of generic, sexualized, strong action stars similar to the Spartans of 300.

However, taking cinematic warmongering and jingoism to new heights isn’t the goal of Sucker Punch. The bland actions characterizations work against Snyder’s intentions instead of serving them. As well, the muddled nature of the message is unfortunately made all too clear when characters begin to directly address it in clumsy, wildly-overstated voice-overs. Still, Snyder’s intentions here are deeper and more admirable than much of the film’s negative criticism suggests. If only Snyder could have explored these themes eloquently and in depth while maintaining the superficial glamour of the visuals, the film could have been great.

One of the most interesting aspects of the film is how Snyder uses the action sequences as a substitute for musical numbers. In many respects, Sucker Punch is a musical with the characters doing battle in wild video-game scenarios instead of singing. In musicals, the songs are meant as revelations of the characters’ inner conflict and emotions to the audience. In Sucker Punch, the actions sequences serve this same purpose. Also, just as musical numbers are meant as the highlights of a musical, the action sequences are meant as the highlights of Sucker Punch. As already said, they’re visually stunning and imaginative and appropriately hyperactive, catering to twenty-first century sensibilities. However, had Snyder included musical numbers as well (as originally intended), I suspect the film would’ve been better served, at least for pure invention’s sake.

Sucker Punch is a failure, but boy is it an ambitious failure. Instead of mindless entertainment, Sucker Punch is a muddled attempt at deconstructing female melodramas and wedding the conventions of the musical to the action film. It doesn’t work, but I recommend you see it and experience it for yourself. Snyder is a good director, and although Sucker Punch is not a good film, he proves that he’s a director who knows how to fail in style.

Sucker Punch (2011)

Directed by Zack Snyder; written by Zack Snyder and Steve Shibuya; starring Emily Browning, Abbie Cornish, and Jena Malone.

5 out of 10