There is a small part of me that is glad that Sucker Punch exists. That part would be larger if this film were not the cinematic equivalent of an ice cream cone on a summer day that has fallen on the sidewalk. Well, there’s my whole review like there, if you care to stop reading.
For the rest of you, there is a greater reason that the film is a failure. Sucker Punch was a noble experiment from a fairly talented filmmaker. Sucker Punch doesn’t work at all, but it is one of the few original blockbuster films to come out this year. Its sense of visual style is unparalleled, and the idea behind it is not necessarily a bad one. But the execution is so bizarre and unfocused that one has to wonder what director Zack Snyder was hoping he would accomplish. After basically interpreting a graphic novel for the big screen (with Watchmen and 300) I guess he felt he could make one of his own. Too bad he forgot the significant amount of substance that goes into the best of the medium.
The film mostly takes place within the deranged mind of the protagonist, but it’s hard to tell what is going on. A girl named Babydoll (Emily Browning) is placed in a mental hospital after accidentally murdering her sister. She is placed under the care of Dr. Gorski (Carla Gugino) and an orderly named Blue Jones (Oscar Issac). She retreats into a fantasy world, where Jones is a pimp and Gorski is some sort of dance instructor. She also meets some of the other patients, including Sweet Pea (Abbie Cornish) and Blondie (Vanessa Hudgens). They are all dressed as prostitutes and perform “dances” for certain clients. During her dances, Babydoll goes into ANOTHER fantasy realm, where she meets a “wise man” (Scott Glenn doing a David Carradine impersonation) who tells her what she will need to escape. Babydoll tries to recruit the other patients to go along with her plan, which also involves imagining daring fantasy missions.
I implied above that the main appeal behind the film is its visual aesthetic. The film LOOKS incredible, from its 1940s cabaret house feel to the steam punk war scenes. It helps to blur the line between reality and insanity to a certain degree (that is, it is impossible for audience to tell what the characters think is real). Besides, this is a film that features people in giant steam-powered suits and zombie German soldiers that look an awful lot like that contortionist spy in Hellboy. I know this may sound unprofessional, but that just looks cool. If this was an actual graphic novel, I have a feeling that it would work a lot more.
Problem is, that’s where Snyder seemed to stop. If it looks cool, there is no need to explain it. But that’s the thing – None of the hallucinations make any sense. Let me put it another way – if you are a young woman being held in a hospital, would you imagine it as a harem? Not unless there is something to base this image on. We never figure out why Babydoll views the world in the way that she does, or indeed, whether she can separate the reality from the fantasy. In fact, why does she need to retreat to two fantasy worlds in order to cope with her situation? And why does the”real world” look just as garish and ugly as the fantasy world? Also, how on earth are all of the other patients/dancers/whatever aware of the imaginary world that Babydoll has created? None of these, in the runtime, are answered. But each of them was vital to make the film work.
None of these questions are ever examined or explained. Babydoll as a character remains almost a non entity and (spoiler warning) when we find out she is not meant to be the protagonist of the piece, it comes too late to explain anything.
I hate when this happens. Luc Besson had the same problem with The Fifth Element (which still ended up being a better film than this one). Someone has a good idea for a film but is unable (or thinks they do not need) to explain why they are so passionate about its execution. Sucker Punch is a film that was made with passion, but it forgot that films have to MEAN something. Yes, a zombie German soldier may be “cool” but it is meaningless if it does not give insight into the character’s mind and betrays its premise.
There is an entertaining film buried somewhere in here that could have been revealed with a few more rewrites. But no one seemed willing or able to do them. Someone just figured, well, if the film looks great, that should be all we need. That is why people went to 300. But Sucker Punch was a bomb with both audiences and critics, which may indicate there is hope for the mass audience after all. Hopefully, there is hope for Zack Snyder as well. He has made some good films, and will no doubt make others in the future. But if Sucker Punch is the best he can do, then his career is pretty much over.