Zack Snyder's 'Sucker Punch' is the cinematic equivalent of Max Fischer, the main character of Wes Anderson's 'Rushmore:' it may be in all of these really awesome and interesting after-school clubs, but it's barely passing its regular classes. As a longtime fan of Snyder, I was excited to see a completely self-generated project after four of them which were derived from existing works, but the film exemplifies both the director's strengths and weaknesses: as a visual stylist, his proficiency is almost incomparable, but he really seems to need an existing story, or at least story structure, to use as a foundation upon which to build those movie moments. A work of unsurpassed style but frivolous substance, 'Sucker Punch' is Zack Snyder's first misfire and ultimately, and for fans, unfortunately, just not a great film.
The film stars Emily Browning ('The Uninvited') as Baby Doll, a young woman committed to a mental institution after assaulting her stepfather with a pistol. Although she's watched closely by the administrator, Blue Jones (Oscar Isaac), and his resident psychiatrist, Dr. Gorski (Carla Gugino), Baby Doll soon meets fellow inmates Sweet Pea (Abbie Cornish), Rocket (Jena Malone), Blondie (Vanessa Hudgens), and Amber (Jamie Chung), and forms a tenuous friendship as their world transforms from an insane asylum into a brothel where they're the main attraction. But when Baby Doll discovers that the High Roller (Jon Hamm) is coming in five days to perform a lobotomy/ take her innocence, the five of them hatch a plan with the help of the Wise Man (Scott Glenn) to acquire a series of items which in theory should help her escape to freedom.
All one need do is look at the promotional materials for the film to observe that 'Sucker Punch' is laden with epic spectacle, something which Snyder is able to create not only intuitively but expertly, somehow deconstructing action sequences and set pieces even as he mounts them. (Say what you will about his speed-ramping technique, which has been the subject both of praise and derision, but he's always constructed sequences that were perfectly comprehensible.)
But a second look at those billboards of granite samurais firing miniguns at sword-wielding schoolgirls reveals that they tell you almost nothing about the plot or what's in store in terms of story; their appeal is purely visceral, and the problem with that is that they're too effective – they literally say all one needs to know about that sequence, completely articulate the wish-fulfillment of the filmmakers, and promise nothing more than a moving version of the same thing you've already seen otherwise fully rendered.
The reason the advertising is relevant to a full critique of the film is because the film itself is just advertising – notes, feelings, ideas in search of a larger narrative; the motivation to conceive any of its sequences seems to be "wouldn't it be cool if we did that." And much of it is genuinely cool. But why other than as a clever conceit subject the characters to not one but two additional layers of reality, each of which operates as a surface-level metaphor for its predecessor, but don't add either detail or emotional dimension to the characters and their situations? Are the fantasy sequences shared experiences, or the daydreams of just one character? And if the latter is the case, which one is doing all of this thinking?
None of these questions are answered. Instead, the Wise Man shows up at the beginning of each of the set pieces and provides an objective that the girls must accomplish, punctuated by a catchy but mostly irrelevant aphorism ("if you don't stand for something, you'll fall for anything," et cetera), all of which feels more like the set-up for a new level in a video game than an escalation of stakes in a story which should be emotional, not just aspirational. Additionally, that exposition provides the film with an out for its boatloads of violence, informing the girls (and by extension, the MPAA) that their adversaries are not in fact real people but zombies, orcs, or androids whose deaths are, at least for the purposes of an intended PG-13 rating, effectively consequence-free.
In between the dingy melancholy of the asylum and the piecemeal imagination of the sorties, there's the most theoretically interesting part of the film: the song-and-dance brothel, where Baby Doll reveals that she possesses abilities that could bring spectators to tears. But even though it's precisely in the dance sequences where the five main characters could theoretically best be defined – from their choice of music to their style of dance – there are no performances in the film, notwithstanding the deliberate (and effective) choice to show only the beginning and end of Baby Doll's numbers (to try and create truly magical choreography would have demystified their impact). Consequently, Baby Doll's dance sequences provide transitions between one reality and the next, but again never justify the choice to have multiple layers, or at least not three of them. After all, couldn't the girls have seduced their captors in the asylum and had those efforts morph just as easily into the same gun battles and dragon showdowns?
According to early interviews with members of the cast and crew, Snyder did indeed conceive and shoot dance sequences with each of the main characters, so one can only assume they'll show up later on DVD. But given the two-hour running time of the film, which already fails to sufficiently engage the audience at more than a visual level, it's entirely understandable why they were excised – namely, because 'Sucker Punch' did not need any more of the excess it already had.
As a fan, the thing that disappoints most is that even amidst all of this incongruous jumble of creativity, it's clear that Snyder not only had real ideas, but genuinely considered how they were meant to fit together. Unfortunately, they just didn't work out, either in their actual assembly, or their cumulative impact. Evidenced by his past work, in particular in the deceptive subtlety of his superhero deconstruction 'Watchmen,' his filmmaking clearly has ambition beyond the visceral, although he's not above trying to gratify those more interested in being thrilled than having their thoughts provoked. But being a consummate post-modernist means maintaining the balance between commenting on the texts that inspire his work and being purely derivative of them, and here that work feels like a mix-tape of influences that never adds up to anything of greater, much less singular meaning.
Speaking of mix tapes, it's really the music (or at least his use of it) that makes the greatest impact in the film, and it evidences his ability - not to mention conscious choice - to construct these multilayer structures of influence, reference and commentary. In the best sequence in 'Sucker Punch,' Snyder retools Bjork's boot-stomping anthem "Army of Me" into the background music for both an epic showdown and a key moment of self-actualization. Firstly, the song samples the iconic drumming of Led Zeppelin's "When the Levee Breaks," which is its own multi-level recontextualization of familiar material, particularly given the fact that Snyder used the Zeppelin track in the film's marketing. But then he cobbles together the disparate influences of Japanese culture, video game boss brawls, and male-gaze schoolgirl sexuality, and imprints the song's militaristic cadence (and lyrics) on top of the resulting action sequence, giving it a riveting energy and an actual, substantive meaning for Baby Doll, who is in the process of discovering her power, both as an object of desire and an agent of her own fate.
Mind you, that sort of subtext may be invisible or unnecessary (or perhaps even absent) for many viewers, especially because the film's intent is to comment on, acknowledge and manipulate the idea of objectifying these young women while appearing to exploit them itself. But that seems like a risk you run when you've spent so much time seducing the mainstream with ideas that no one quite knows are so subversive; the fact that the most superfluous sequence in 'Watchmen' was a fight scene, for example, is a testament to his disinterest in doing big movies the same way as everyone else, but also that he's enough of a showman not to excise it just for contrarianism's sake. Here, he simply didn't bother enough with the basics of storytelling – in particular, clarity of purpose and depth of feeling – to make his pop-culture mash-up into more than the sum of its parts.
Ultimately, as commendable as it may be to use one's muscle to make a movie not based on any pre-existing text, it should be one that reaffirms the value of originality, not reminds why the studios so seldom invest in it. And there are many truly impressive threads in the film, even though not all of them tie together in the end. In which case, let's hope that this isn't an exercise in getting some singular impulse out of his system, but in learning how to hone his creativity for future ones. Because 'Sucker Punch' is definitely not a success, but where Snyder failed was in using too much to do too little, even though he had the right balance between the two in his grasp the whole time.