Why do I use Jena Malone’s poster at the top? Because, surprisingly, she ended up being my favorite character in the film.
Sucker Punch arrives in theaters this weekend as the first “event” movie of 2011. It’s basically a summer movie being released in March. It’s the first original movie (i.e. not based on a previous book, comic, movie, etc.) that director Zack Snyder (Dawn of the Dead, 300, Watchmen) has made, and that was the main draw for me from the moment I heard this project announced. I’m always curious what “visionary” filmmakers like him are capable of creating on their own. If you’ve read my movie opinions for any length of time, you’ll know I have much more respect for a great piece of original work than I do for great adaptations, mostly because creating superior original ideas for film is much more difficult (and, I’d argue, more creatively rewarding). Snyder came up with this idea and co-wrote the script with Steve Shibuya, who had previously only done crew work.
Since I loathe writing plot summaries in my reviews, I’ll just copy/paste/paraphrase from a synopsis on IMDb; “A young girl (Baby Doll, played by Emily Browning) is locked away in a mental asylum by her wicked stepfather, where she is scheduled to undergo a lobotomy in 5 days’ time. Faced with unimaginable odds, she retreats to fantastical world in her imagination where she and four other female inmates at the asylum plot to escape the facility. The lines between reality and fantasy blur as Baby Doll and her companions battle various creatures and enemies to retrieve the 5 items they need that will allow them to break free from their captors before it’s too late.”
I started writing this review less than an hour after seeing the film, and I’m still not sure whether or not I liked it, or whether I’d call it good or bad. I know I enjoyed watching it. Or maybe a better description would be…the 13-year old boy in me enjoyed it. Since I can’t yet determine whether or not I think the movie is any good, I’m thinking the easiest way to come to a conclusion while writing this review would be to do the old what’s good and what’s bad format. Let’s do it. MINOR SPOILERS ahead.
WHAT I LIKED
-I really liked the movie’s soundtrack. THIS is how soundtracks should be done. It almost feels like a musical at points. The soundtrack is composed primarily of covers, and I especially liked the use of a new version of The Pixies‘ classic “Where Is My Mind?”, which is performed here by Yoav (whoever that is) alongside the film’s star, Emily Browning. Only problem there is that it’s hard for any film to use that song without audiences thinking back to Fight Club. There’s also a nice version of Jefferson Airplane‘s “White Rabbit”, performed here by the lovely Emiliana Torrini (who performed one of my all-time favorite original songs for a movie, “Gollum’s Song”, from The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers).
-Emily Browning, Abbie Cornish, Jena Malone, Vanessa Hudgens and Jamie Chung were fun to look at. I’m not too interested in psychiatry, but if there’s a place in the real world with female inmates that attractive, I may have to consider a change in career plans. Oops, there’s the 13-year old in me talking again.
-Did I mention it’s fun to look at? Seriously, the visuals are almost worth the price of admission alone. The girls, the effects work, the costumes, the production design, it’s all wonderfully done. The film reportedly cost $82 million, and every penny of that is on the screen.
-Although this movie is in no way similar to Inception, I couldn’t help but be reminded of it a few times as we go from Baby Doll’s reality to her first layer of fantasy to her second, batshit crazy layer of fantasy where we see all the huge CG battles. Much like Inception, this becomes sort of a dream within a dream within a dream. I like the ambitiousness of it, and I think the movie is pretty creative in that sense, but the problem is…
WHAT I DIDN’T LIKE
…the script itself just isn’t that good. I didn’t ever have any real emotional investment in the characters, and the subpar, sometimes plain bad dialogue doesn’t make up for any of the flaws in the storytelling. What I’m saying is, except for how the film LOOKS, there’s nothing exceptional about it. During the fight sequences, this feels much more like a video game than a movie…
…and that’s because at no point during the fantasy sequences do you feel any of the girls are actually in danger. If there are no real consequences to doing these ridiculous, unrealistic stunts, then there’s no emotional investment, and thus, no reason for me to care. Also, modern filmmakers need to learn that when everything your heroes fight is computer-generated, and we all KNOW it’s computer-generated, the absurd stunts themselves become less impressive by default. I thought the first battle with the undead Nazis was pretty cool, the castle siege/dragon fight was okay, but the fight against the robots in the train was awful. The movie took brief pauses after each CG sequence, seemingly to allow the audience time to react or applaud, and I’m sorry, but there isn’t going to be much of that going on anywhere. You have to earn those reactions, not try to force us into them.
-The performances of the girls are pretty good considering what they’re working with, but there was nothing Scott Glenn could do to overcome the utter cheesiness of some of the shit he’s forced to say as the girls’ Yoda-like mentor in the fantasy sequences. Same goes for Oscar Isaacs as the asylum caretaker/club manager. Isaacs was fantastic as the villainous king in Robin Hood last year, but here he walks around with his two mute thugs in tow, making stupid threats and twirling his mustache with his silly scheming.
-The absurdity of what Snyder believes this girl would imagine herself doing and wearing strained credibility. It appears that the real world parts of this story take place no later than the 1960’s, yet I’m supposed to believe that a 20-year old girl in that time period is supposed to imagine herself and her friends dressed up in fashion that’s sexy in 2011 while they’re fighting enemies based in a World War II setting? Or a medieval setting? AND she can imagine futuristic robots and cities? Give me a break. This was a major logic flaw that I could not get past. Basically, this 20-year old girl in 1960 (or whenever) has the imagination of a 15-year old boy in 2011. That’s what I’m supposed to believe, and I’m sorry, but I couldn’t make that leap. I can’t imagine any 20-something girl fantasizing anything remotely like this if they were imagining themselves kicking ass.
I’d be very interested to see what a female writer/director would have done with this same story. I think it’s a cool concept, but the execution left much to be desired.
Plus, it’s just too damn simple-minded! These epic fight scenes in her fantasies are metaphors for such daring tasks in the real world as…stealing a map! Or…stealing a lighter! Come on, brah.
-More absurdity in the plot. Yes, I’m aware that we’re supposed to make a leap of faith in every movie in accepting that almost every one of our protagonists is attractive. But again with the superhot insane asylum inmates. At no point do we see any of the other girls besides Baby Doll doing anything crazy in the asylum. I guess we’re just supposed to assume they’ve all been wrongly imprisoned. But then, when Baby Doll comes up with her plan of escape, who is it that agrees to go with her? Why, it’s the 4 hottest inmates at the asylum, of course! Ugh. When you’re engrossed in a good story, you don’t think about stuff like this, but here it was a glaring issue.
-The tease. So apparently Baby Doll’s dancing can mesmerize any man while her cohorts steal whatever it is they need to steal to escape, but we the audience never actually get to see it. She starts wiggling around like someone awaiting a fatality in Mortal Kombat (I kept waiting to hear a voiceover yelling “FINISH HER!”), and then the camera tightens in on her face as we’re whisked away to her fantasies. That bugged the shit out of me. At least show what it is that’s so titillating ONCE, dude. That’s just basic filmmaking; showing is always better than telling. That’s one of the primary rules of screenwriting. Simply seeing a bunch of dudes stupefied after she’s done dancing doesn’t convince me it was all that great. PROVE IT! And yes, that’s a nitpick, but I don’t think it’s an insignificant one.
-I know this is a tired complaint, but as good as Snyder is at using slow-motion, I hold out hope that he’ll stop using it as such a crutch. I get particularly annoyed when he uses it in normal, real-world settings. There’s no reason that 50% (it may have even been more) of the first 5 minutes of this movie needed to be in slow-mo. Just let a guy open a fucking door in regular speed, will ya? Jesus Christ. When it comes to his next project, next year’s Superman: Man of Steel, Snyder needs to mature and cut his use of slow-mo by about 95%, or that film is going to look incredibly stupid. Personally, I don’t want to see Superman doing anything slowly. As a filmmaker, it’s not good if your most distinguishable visual attribute is your constant use of slow motion.
So there you have it. I guess I’m coming down on the side of the people who claim it’s a nice-looking, soulless mess. It’s funny, filmmakers fight against the studios for years trying to make one film that’s all their own. In Christopher Nolan‘s case, the massive success of his two Batman movies allowed him to do whatever he wanted, and he turned that opportunity into a homerun with Inception. Here, to keep him in the fold, Warner Bros. let Snyder do whatever he wanted, and Sucker Punch is the result. I dunno, I just wanted more from Snyder’s first big chance at having complete creative control. If this movie underperforms at the box office, he may not get the chance to do his own thing again with this kind of access to virtually unlimited resources. To make another baseball analogy (which is always fun), Sucker Punch is an out, but not a 3-pitch strikeout. It’s a 10-pitch at bat that ended with a foul out deep down the left field line.
Sucker Punch is a lot of big ideas built upon a very shaky foundation. I find it interesting that Zack Snyder, who recently made perhaps the most muscular movie in cinematic history (300), has now made the biggest masturbatory fantasy ever for teenage boys. I’m not sure what that says about him. If this review seems a bit messy or uneven, I apologize, but that’s what this movie does to you. Believe me, it’s much easier to trash a movie that’s complete shit. I still want to like Sucker Punch, but the fact remains it’s simply not a good movie.
It took an hour to write this caption, because I did it in SnyderMotion™!
No matter what opinion you hold about Sucker Punch, it has become one of those movies that critics have taken great pleasure in hating, which often results in some very amusing reviews. Here are a few I’ve found immensely entertaining and/or insightful:
Rotten Tomatoes (where it has a very “rotten” 21% rating)
Massawyrm at Aint It Cool News
Matt Goldberg at Collider
Vince Mancini at Filmdrunk (basically agrees with everything I’ve said, but says it a little funnier)
A.O. Scott at the NY Times
And finally, my boy Richard Roeper at The Chicago Sun-Times
Today’s Recommended Listening will be Metallica‘s “Whiplash”, because that’s how I felt after coming out of Sucker Punch.