I am not particularly a fan of Zack Snyder. He had a solid debut with the 2004 remake of Dawn of the Dead, but with his next film 300 got pegged as The Guy Who Makes Comicbook Movies. His adaptation of Watchmen was eagerly anticipated by yours truly, but I found it wholly disappointing; in his obsession with capturing the style of the Alan Moore-Dave Gibbons graphic novel, he completely lost the substance. Style over substance is pretty much Snyder's calling card nowadays (and his last film did nothing to change that), so I wasn't expecting much from his latest. Revoke my geek credentials, but it takes more than a trailer featuring sword-wielding fuku-clad hot chicks fighting samurai robots and dragons to get me excited.
Sucker Punch has all that and more - and less. But surprisingly, it does have substance.
A young girl (Emily Browning) is admitted to an insane asylum by her abusive stepfather (Gerard Plunkett), who then bribes an orderly named Blue (Oscar Isaac) to forge papers that will have her lobotomized in five days. She escapes from the misery of her surroundings into her own mind, creating a fantasy in which she is Babydoll, the newest addition to a bordello run by Blue, and in which Madam Gorsky (Carla Gugino) trains the girls in their burlesque dance routines. She discovers that when she dances, she enters yet another layer of fantasy in which she is a powerful warrior, charged by a Wise Man (Scott Glenn) to find five items that will earn her her freedom. Babydoll recruits four other fellow inmates/prostitutes - sisters Sweet Pea (Abbie Cornish) and Rocket (Jena Malone), Amber (Jamie Chung) and Blondie (Vanessa Hudgens) - in her plan to steal these items, both from the bordello and the war-torn fantasy world.
Let's get this out of the way first: the action scenes, inspired by anime/videogames/fantasy/sci-fi/dieselpunk/the kitchen sink, are exactly what you'd expect from the trailers. Yes, Babydoll wears a midriff-baring sailor suit and wields a katana. She fights giant robot samurai, then joins her fellow girl warriors in WWI-esque trenches to fight zombie Nazis (yes yes, it's WWI, but they might as well be Nazis) along with a mech that has a bunny painted on the front. Later there's orcs, and a dragon, and a futuristic train, and killer robots. If I sound less than utterly wowed, it's because I ain't quite down with Snyder's approach to action scenes, which is to shoot them in one gorgeously-composed, frame-worthy shot after another. He just wants it to look cool. I want choreography in my action scenes; I want to see tactics, reversals, moves and counter-moves. Fight choreographer Damon Caro did his job, but Snyder just wasn't interested in showing us all that.
Which is not to say I wasn't somewhat wowed. I was. They were fun. Especially since the non-action scenes were often not fun; as a matter of fact, they were pretty draggy. It takes its own sweet time establishing the brothel setting, which wouldn't be so bad if Snyder wasn't so deficient in basic storytelling craft. The characters were all flat, and even the ones we get to know the most - Babydoll, Rocket and Sweet Pea - have little personality. The other two were practically not in it at all (and not surprisingly, their actors were the two worst among the five). Babydoll's plan for escape consists of obtaining four items ("the fifth... is a mystery") but doesn't include how to use them, and the others never question this minor omission. The dialogue throughout is just dull. ("If you don't stand for something, you'll fall for anything"? Yeah, that's new.) And never showing what Babydoll's supposedly mesmerizing dances look like is never anything but a cop-out.
So, fun action scenes but fail everything else - why then did I rate this higher than World Invasion: Battle Los Angeles? Because of its ending. That is a pretty damn ballsy ending, and probably the last thing the trailers would've led you to expect. It's an ending that calls into question everything you've seen before, and ties into things established from the very beginning - and yes, the comparisons to Inception are apt, even beyond the multiple-layers-of-unreality thing. It's that rare ending that's unexpected yet appropriate, and I gotta hand it to Snyder and his co-writer Steve Shibuya for even attempting it. It almost justifies Snyder using it as a tissue-thin platform on which to hang all his nerdgasmic fetishes.
I said almost. Because this movie clearly wants to be all about the female empowerment, and not just with the kickass action heroines - both the brothel and asylum settings are clearly meant to emphasize the downtrodden girls rebelling against the evil males. And yet Snyder has them dress in bustiers and hot pants and fishnet stockings even in the fantasy action sequences, when they're supposed to be all empowered and emancipated and doin'-it-for-themselves. This isn't the biggest incongruity for me, honestly (I'm proudly feminist, but I don't happen to think that women in sexy outfits automatically equals sexual exploitation of women); what is is the fact that Snyder then piles on the mechs and Nazi zombies and dragons and robots and stuff that appeals to teenage boys. Who are you targeting your female empowerment message to, Zack? Did you honestly think those trailers show anything that could possibly appeal to young girls?
Well, they appeal to me. Both the wildly imaginative fantasy sequences as well as the female empowerment. It's terribly flawed in both execution and conception - and intent - and I didn't even like it all the way through, but I still liked it. And that ending had a lot to do with my liking it. I said this movie has substance, and that substance is in the message that that ending drives home: when things are at their bleakest and most hopeless, your only recourse is defiance. Even if it is futile. Even if it cannot save you. Even if you still lose in the end. Because even when all choices are taken away from you, you can still choose to defy. Because defiance is all you have. And sometimes, defiance can even make a difference. Mr. Snyder, I'll high-five you just for that.
NEXT REVIEW: Cun!, finally