By David Mayne
Sucker Punch (2011)
Starring: Emily Browning, Abbie Cornish, Jena Malone, Vanessa Hudgens, Jamie Chung, Scott Glenn, Oscar Isaac
Directed By: Zack Snyder
Who ordered guns, knights, dragons, nazi zombies, atomic bombs, samurai, and beautiful women?
There are two types of movies. There are those that big studios fund, control, and candy-coat for the masses in the hopes of healthy box-office returns. They feature big names, bigger budgets, and wildly unrealistic expectations. Somehow, though, as overly produced and overly hyped as they may be, these so-called “blockbusters” continue, time and again, to rake in obscene amounts of money, to the point of absurdity. With the right ad-campaigns, the right catch-phrases, and the target demographic lit on fire with the fury of a thousands suns, any film can “succeed” in a market of herd-mentality movie-goers.
The other type of movie is the one that a director sets out to make (regardless of budget and Hollywood expectations) the way they want to make it. Gone is the need to satisfy the many; gone is the need to bow to a talking head who deems some scenes unneccessary while others make the cut; what is “important” and what can be left out. Too many times, directors are faced with cutting-room-floor, make-or-break decisions that can mean the difference between good or great; decisions that can seriously alter a film’s entire presentation or theme, and sometimes make something fantastic into simply so-so. This second type of movie is usually one free of most constraints that bigger, more “user-friendly” films are generally subjected to. These movies allow their creator to throw off popular opinion and make the films THEY want to make, how they want to make them. The filmmaker is free to tell a story their way, to take it wherever they see fit. In this, the true art of film is able to shine through, and while not wrapped up all nice and neat in a pretty little box with a shiny bow, these films are sometimes pure examples of ingenious story telling and honest cinematic passion. These films are sometimes panned by “critics”, and sometimes loved. They are usually distanced from Hollywood, and subtly shunned from the A-list spotlight, unless of course they do well financially (in which case they are applauded and called “art”).
Several examples of this second type of film exist: Full Metal Jacket, The Life Aquatic, Evil Dead, Clerks, The Fall, and more recently, Primer…to name a few.
Zack Snyder and Steve Shibuya’s Sucker Punch found itself, I believe, in situation #2. Almost universally panned by journalists and cold-shouldered by anyone with a penlight and an opinion, Sucker Punch still managed to reach a level of viewers who understood it for what it was: two hours of visually pleasing, thought-provoking melodrama…a plutonium-propelled rocket coaster of beautifully blazing hot metal and fire. It’s purpose was simple, and Snyder completed exactly what he set out to do with Sucker Punch, which was to make his movie, his way.
Condemned to a mental institution in the 1960’s by her twisted stepfather, whose intentions towards her and her younger sister were less than savory, Babydoll (which is all we know her as) soon realizes that she will be lobotomized in order wipe away her memories, reducing her to a drooling idiot for the rest of her days. Upon arriving at the Lennox House for the Mentally Insane, and bent on eventually escaping, Babydoll begins to mentally retreat into a fictionalized fantasy world where she and a few of the other female patients are members of an elite special-forces team, with almost superhuman-like powers and abilities. Along the way, she meets the leader of this team, called the Wise Man (Glenn), who tells Babydoll that she needs to collect four real-world items if she intends to escape. As she “awakens” to real life at the hospital, Babydoll sets out on a covert group of missions to attain these mysterious items, to free not only herself but her new-found friends, Amber, Rocket, Blondie, and Sweet Pea (Chung, Malone, Hudgens, Cornish). A series of real and alternate world scenarios play out, all connected to Babydoll’s plan for escape, with each new scene bursting with a volatile mix of over-the-top action and melancholy reality. The real acting crown is given to Oscar Isaac, however, as the villainous orderly/club owner, Blue. His cold, unaffected character is loaded with sociopathic epicness that will have you wanting him dead, in a big way, right from the start.
The fact that this film is essentially about a girl condemned to an asylum, and the make-believe world she creates in which to escape her morbid reality is nothing short of captivating. I must admit, the first time I watched Sucker Punch, I simply didn’t get it. I’m not saying that this movie reinvents the wheel, far from, but what it does do is provide a few hours of surreal escapism, through the eyes of a beautiful young woman who is, herself, escaping from a dark and twisted predicament. Snyder has managed to craft a visually stunning fabric of alternate-reality that spills over into the real world. He treats the film as a canvas on which viewers can experience his fantastical notions of supreme mind-over-matter decadence. His love for what he is trying to accomplish in Sucker Punch serendipitously drips from every scene, and while the story in and of itself is entirely simple in design, the generously applied nerd-core, steam punk coat of alt-modern paint generously coats everything it touches.
I know not everyone is going to get what I got out of Sucker Punch. Some viewers will see it as too long, too far out, poorly acted, or simply too much. While it can be said that Sucker Punch is not a mainstream cup of Earl Grey, it is no different from, say, The Matrix or Harry Potter. Why this film was panned is an interesting saga, filled with allegations of everything from misogyny to softcore pin-up smut caught on camera. Critics would call the women in Sucker Punch the very antithesis to the term female empowerment, espousing the film to be no more than a high-resolution Girls in Prison-era sexploitation flick, which I couldn’t disagree with more. Sucker Punch is many things, but a throwback chunk of celluloid garbage like those implied is not only an insult to Snyder and Shibuya’s work, but to the cast and crew as a whole.
Brilliantly paced, expertly shot, and two hours of exquisite visuals make Sucker Punch a sure-fire action/drama/sci-fi/fantasy/horror extravaganza! Few films, and even fewer directors, tackle this amount of randomness and make it work, but Sucker Punch takes the status quo and slaps it squarely in the jaw. Watch this movie, they don’t come around very often.
Suggested Games: Clive Barker’s Jericho, Bioshock, Lair, Iron Storm, NecroVision