There is an old school of thought when it comes mediocre movies which says it is always more interesting to watch a talented filmmaker make a bad film than to watch a studio hack make an average one. This axiom certainly applies to "Sucker Punch," the latest film from director Zack Snyder ("Watchmen").
Critics have been savaging this movie, a handful of which are convinced "Sucker Punch" is one of the worst movies ever made. It isn’t that bad, but "Sucker Punch" is a visually stunning, fascinating mess of a film and a triumph of filmmaking technique. The cinematography is amazing but the storytelling and characterization are complete failures.
The movie tries to be a psychological action thriller with fantasy elements thrown into the mix. The story deals with a young woman, known as Baby Doll (played by Emily Browning, "The Uninvited"), who has just lost her mother. Baby Doll and her younger sister are forced to live with their evil stepfather, played by Gerard Plunkett ("2012"), who attempts to rape the younger sister. Baby Doll tries to shoot the pervert but kills her sister instead. As a result, Baby Doll is sent to a mental institution run by the nefarious Blue, played by Oscar Isaacs ("Robin Hood"), and she is immediately scheduled for a lobotomy. In the meantime, she meets Rocket, played by Jena Malone, ("Into the Wild"), her sister Sweet Pea, played by Abbie Cornish, ("Limitless"), Blondie, played by Vanessa Hudgens, ("Beastly") and Amber, played by Jamie Chung ("Grown Ups"). They all learn from Polish psychiatrist Dr. Gorski, played by Carla Gugino, ("Watchmen") how to cope with their time at the asylum by re-imagining it as a brothel/orphanage where they dance for men who pass through.
Together, the girls devise a plan to escape from the asylum, in which Baby Doll will distract the staff with her dancing while the others find four items needed for the escape, which they must do before Baby Doll gets lobotomized. They go deeper into their minds and make the quest for these items into elaborate fantasies under the guidance of the Wise Man, played by Scott Glenn, ("The Bourne Ultimatum"), which are complete with dragons, robots and zombified German soldiers, with the girls dressed like anime characters and carrying guns and swords.
If that synopsis sounds long-winded and confusing, then it is true to its execution in the film. The story is a grab bag of ideas that don’t come together at all. Snyder, who co-wrote the script, tries way too hard to cram in ideas about identity, female oppression and psychological freedom until it becomes an almost disastrous combination. It’s not a complete disaster because a film that tries and fails at telling a story is better than not trying at all. This is just a case of a director’s reach exceeding his grasp.
The film also suffers from a lack of real characters. Browning is completely wooden as Baby Doll, and she has the same pout on her face for the entire movie. Malone and Cornish are fine in their roles, but each one only has one character trait to play off of (Rocket is spunky and courageous; Sweet Pea is mature and cautious). Hudgens and Chung have no traits whatsoever and are completely lost at sea with their performances. The movie wouldn’t have been any different if these two characters weren’t in it. At least Gugino and Isaacs get to have some fun with their respective roles of the protective shrink and the villain, respectively. The always excellent Jon Hamm (TV’s "Mad Men") shows up as the lobotomist but is wasted with what is basically a glorified cameo.
Despite these flaws, there is one area where "Sucker Punch" truly succeeds: the fantasy sequences, which are truly exhilarating. They combine gunfire, explosions, slow-motion fight scenes and a surprisingly unique soundtrack which has the cast singing covers of The Beatles, The Stooges, The Pixies and many more into an all-out extravaganza. This combination is so well done that the movie is almost worth seeing on the big screen. When it comes to creating pure, kinetic action sequences, Snyder is at his peak. When he learns how to tell a complete story that isn’t adapted from other works, he’ll truly be a director to reckon with.
But one downside to the fantasy sequences is that they do not matter. Since they’re completely in the minds of the five girls, there’s no sense of danger. It doesn’t matter if one of them doesn’t defeat a 60-foot tall samurai robot because it isn’t really there. Better movies dealing with dreams or fantasies, such as "Inception," give the fantasy sequences real-life stakes that also are properly paralleled with what happens in reality. So when the girls try to steal a knife from a cook, the fantasy shouldn’t be a knife protected by a bomb and armed robots on a train headed toward Saturn.
But the single biggest problem with "Sucker Punch" is the film’s PG-13 rating. This is a strange case of a director willfully compromising his artistic vision. There are huge chunks of the movie where it is clear that objectionable material had been removed. For example, no dancing is seen in the film from any of the girls. It is unclear why Snyder didn’t go for the jugular with the R rating, and make the movie into a gory, B-movie exploitation spectacle. That movie tries to break through, but the door keeps getting slammed shut. Snyder tries to make a daring film with scandily-clad girls in violent fight scenes, while, at the same time, being prudent with how the material is presented. Those two approaches do not match at all. Snyder also does not fully support the world he is trying to create: the Wise Man tells the girls in one scene that, "if you don’t stand for something, you’ll fall for anything." With "Sucker Punch," Zack Snyder ignores his own advice.