The movie rejects reality from the outset, beginning on a curtained stage that opens on the bedroom of our main character. In a bold, wordless sequence, we meet Babydoll (Emily Browning), a young girl whose mother has just died, leaving her and her sister in the hands of their perverted, rage-drinking stepfather (Gerard Plunkett). After the stepfather rapes Babydoll’s sister, who is accidentally killed, she is stuck in a mental institution for women where Dr. Vera Gorski (Carla Gugino) tries to treat the girls through a sort of dance therapy. Unfortunately, the stepfather pays evil head orderly Blue (Oscar Isaac) to bring in a specialist to give Babydoll a lobotomy in five days.
In response to this, Babydoll has a break with reality. For some reason, she finds it more comforting to imagine that she is instead trapped in a brothel, where Gorski is the dance teacher and Blue is the club owner and pimp. The girls there are forced to dance for their clients, under penalty of death. Babydoll meets and befriends some of the girls, including Rocket (Jena Malone), her sister Sweet Pea (Abbie Cornish), Blondie (Vanessa Hudgens) and Amber (Jamie Chung), who all agree to try to escape with her.
In this second level of reality, Babydoll discovers that she has an almost supernatural ability to dance. Whenever she dances, men are essentially hypnotized and helpless. However, the audience never sees her dance, because when she does, she drops into yet another level of reality, the one we’ve seen a lot of in the film’s trailers. Here, Babydoll and her friends take part in a series of hyper-stylized action sequences, shepherded along by the leathery counsel of Scott Glenn (playing a character billed as Wise Man).
I’ll say this for Snyder: He doesn’t hold anything back. The movie has machine guns, jet packs, dragons, zeppelins, swordfights, robot samurais and runaway trains, not to mention steampunk German zombies. Snyder certainly doesn’t seem to be saving any ideas for the future. They feel like they have been waiting to spill out of Snyder for a long time.
These action sequences operate very much like video game levels, with a concrete goal for the girls to achieve (like finding an item they need for their escape) and a boss to be faced at the end. These sequences are supposed to have something to do with what is going on in “reality,” but it is never really clear how. And since the girls don’t really follow any of the laws of physics during the action scenes, there feels like there’s no danger to them. Snyder is a gifted visual stylist and action director, and, moment to moment, these scenes are quite exciting, but they have almost no real stakes and can of pointless.
Snyder and Steve Shibuya, with whom he co-wrote the film, don’t give us enough differentiation between the levels of fantasy, establishing a baseline of “reality” for us to care about, or real characters to invest in. The action sequences that make up much of the film have dazzling visuals and broad scope, but little depth. Snyder doesn’t seem too concerned with traditional narrative or character development, but he is asking us to care whether these girls escape or not, and I never felt it.
Some of the execution in Sucker Punch fails, but I admire Snyder’s attempt. This sort of auteur-driven action film is incredibly rare these days, and Snyder definitely seems to be striving here, going after big ideas and boldly putting his vision out there for all to see. So many movies these days are boring and cautious, so it’s nice to see someone aim high, even if many of his ideas are half baked.
For example, there is supposed to be some commentary here on the objectification of women, as the girls use their feminine wiles to help themselves escape. And that’s great, but the action fantasies Babydoll has, in which she and her friends are all seemingly dressed in fetish gear, still seem much more like they come from the mind of a horny adolescent boy than a teenage girl. Even her mind has been colonized by male exploitation. Perhaps Snyder is trying to say that the brand of feminism practiced by porn stars and strippers doesn’t really work, doesn’t result in true freedom or equality. Or perhaps he just really likes dressing up hot chicks in lingerie.
Much of Sucker Punch fails outside of a purely visceral level, but I like that Snyder is striving for something here. While it has been made obvious here that he is still much more comfortable with an action set piece than an intelligently considered idea, Snyder is one of the few filmmakers these days trying to put a personal touch on giant-budget action films.
Carey Norris writes about film for Birmingham Weekly. Send your comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.