Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Sucker Punch: Just What is Going on Here?

Many of the reviews for Sucker Punch have been scathing in their disgust for Zack Snyder's film. High on the list of many of the reviewers complaints is how the film promises to be a violent "sexploitation" film, and fails to deliver. Many of these critics accuse Snyder of presenting the audience with "near-rape fantasies and violent revenge scenarios disguised as a female-empowerment fairy tale wasn’t going to satisfy anyone but himself" or similar accusations. In a way, it is as if these critics' expectations have been "sucker punched" by what they witnessed in the theater. They expected a high concept tale of "kick ass chicks" killing Samurai, steam powered Nazi zombies, Orcs, Robots, and Dragons. They expected Buffy/Nikita/Project A-ko/Blood: The Last Vampire meets Gundam/Castle Falkenstein.

That isn't what they got, and it isn't what you should expect should you choose to go to watch this film. The movie is visually stunning, but it shares more with Scorsese's Shutter Island and del Toro's Pan's Labyrinth than it does with the expectations its advertisements create. It is a film of sorrow, hopelessness, loss, despair and the role that fantasy plays in dealing with these powerful emotions. The movie's tagline is "you will be unprepared" and I have never read a more apropos movie tagline. Most people think a tagline like that hints at a narrative twist in the movie, and there is one, but in this case the tagline is telling the viewer that the film's trailer isn't truly preparing the viewer for the experience.

So...if Sucker Punch isn't a high concept kick ass chick movie, and is instead a film of despair and fantasy, just what is going on here?

Sucker Punch is quite brave. In a world where critics, continually complain that no one is making "original" films. Snyder did exactly that with Sucker Punch. It is wholly his own creation, even with its obvious inspirations.

The film transitions between "dream" sequences and "reality" in a way that is unnerving and odd, but when one sees the end of the film one realizes that one watched something they didn't come in to see. The film has voice over bookends that tell viewers that angels watch over us and can be found even in the most horrific of places, and that these angels don't fight for us rather they inspire us to be able to fight even in hopeless situations. Given that despair can be viewed as the gravest of all sins, it seems justifiable that the role of angels would be to encourage us to fight rather than despair.

Sucker Punch opens with the death of "Baby Doll's" mother, an event that leaves "Baby Doll" and her sister in the care of their sinister step-father. This step-father finds out that his wife has left her not insubstantial wealth to her two daughters. The step-father responds to this news with rage and decides to take control of that wealth by physically, psychologically, and sexually abusing the girls into submission. "Baby Doll" responds by breaking out of her room, finding a gun, and arriving in time to prevent her sister from being abused. She shoots at the step-father...misses...and kills her sister by accident. She is quickly institutionalized in an asylum, where the father bribes an orderly to arrange a lobotomy for the girl. The psychiatrist who runs the asylum doesn't support the use of lobotomies, but in five days someone who does perform them will be at the asylum and the orderly will forge the psychiatrist's signature and arrange for the deal to be done.

Though Snyder spends an entire act developing this backstory, it is possible "Baby Doll" is not the "protagonist" of the film -- if the film's one twist is to be believed. I say "if the one twist is to be believed" because one could argue whether the film's "angels can be anywhere" message is the real message or whether the film is all a fantasy world created after after the lobotomy takes place.

There is something in this film, it is as brave as "Pan's Labyrinth" and shares many of the same themes, but Sucker Punch is not as good as del Toro's masterpiece.

Sucker Punch is a weird piece, and the more I contemplate the film the more I come to think that it is a strongly tragic piece. The more I analyze the structure of the film, and visual clues, the more I believe that any vengeance fantasy aspect of the film is exactly that...fantasy.

It's funny. In Pan's Labyrinth, I chose to accept the fantasy ending at the end as reality. I wanted so badly for the girl to be safe and to have succeeded in her tasks. In Sucker Punch, it doesn't matter whether the fantasy is the reality or mere fantasy, because the girl is "safe" either way.

The message is very much the same as Shutter Island. In Shutter Island a the protagonist has to deal with the twin horrors that his wife murdered his children and that her murdered her for it. He creates a fantasy world to deal with these tragedies. In the end, he despairs choosing to be lobotomized instead of facing cold reality. He asks the question, "would you rather live life a monster, or "die" a hero?" Sucker Punch asks the same question. "Baby Doll" killed her sister while trying to save her. She doesn't want this memory. She would rather be a savior that helps someone else escape a horrible situation. She has five days to do this very task and the film is about that journey...or is it?

It is possible that the film could have better met Snyder's honest intentions if it had been rated R, but I wonder if it would have reached the audience that should be watching this film.

There's something tragically humanist about this film that I think needs discussing. There is something there. I don't know that Snyder quite captured it, but I do know that one could have some genuinely interesting discussions about this picture akin to discussions I have had after Shutter Island.

It's a strange film that needs the idyllic fantasy segments to work, and I don't think the film would be better if the audience where shown Baby Doll's dances -- these dances seem to be the obsession of many critics. This is because the dances are only happening in one of the fantasy layers of the film. We never see the actual dancing because there aren't really any dances to see in the first place.

Snyder has layered his fantasy world in the following way:

Act 1 takes place in the real world and presents the back story that shows viewers why "Baby Doll" has been institutionalized, establishes the hopelessness of the asylum, and introduces the other characters in the film -- the orderly, the doctor, and the fellow inmates. This act ends just as a doctor is about to perform a lobotomy on "Baby Doll."

The baseline "reality" of acts 2 - 4 take place in "The Club," a combination burlesque and brothel run by the orderly, where the girls are all prostitutes and dancers. This is where "Baby Doll" works with the other dancers to create an escape plan, and this is where "Baby Doll" dances

Every time "Baby Doll" dances in acts 2 -4, the viewer is transported into "The Dream within the Dance." This is the world of the visually fantastic sequences we have all seen in the previews. This is also where "Baby Doll" meets Scott Glenn who, in a nod to his role in The Challenge, provides "Baby Doll" with weapons and tells her she needs to fight to survive. Glenn is the first glimpse of a possible angel we receive in the film, and he is introduced in a dream within a dream.

The final act of the film "returns" us to "reality." Return and reality are in quotes because this reality may or may be nothing more than the inner thoughts of a lobotomized mind. What happens in act 5 is entirely dependent on how you choose to read of the film.

I'd like to reiterate that acts 2 - 4 alternate between "The Club" and "The Dream within the Dance" depending on what is happening at that moment. The dances are used to signify when we are transitioning from one fantasy world to the next. All dances happen at the level of "The Club" and at no time does "Baby Doll" dance in the real world. The only reality we can be certain of is that "Baby Doll" is institutionalized, that she sees a possible way to escape, she attends therapy sessions, and then she ends up in a chair about to be lobotomized. What happens after that is up to interpretation.

My interpretation is a tragic one. In my view the final act is entirely fantasy because of the use of the word Paradise and the appearance of Scott Glenn in the act. This interpretation makes the film a tragedy that, far from being exploitative of young women, shows us how the power of the human mind to create fantasy can help us deal with the greatest horrors. The fantasy world is preferable to the real world, it is a better world, it is a world where we can fight for the survival of others and succeed.

Snyder should be admired for his effort and I think this will be a film that will be watched for stylistic and visual skills for years to come. I had fun during parts of Sucker Punch, but other times I felt distinctly uncomfortable. Snyder took me far out of my comfort zone by luring me in with one kind of tale and giving me another. I expected an action fantasy and received Shutter Island. I had expected a "kick ass chick" movie, but instead got a deconstruction of the genre. I found the film to be disturbing and thought provoking, a feeling very similar to how I felt after my first viewing of The Straw Dogs.

Over the course of his career so far, I have found Snyder to be a brave and wonderful film maker. He has made everything from 300 to Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga'hoole without the slightest sense of irony.


David N. Scott said...

Have to disagree on the entirely fantasy scenario - if we accept the asylum world as the real world, then the psychatrist tells the lobotomist(?) that Babydoll had caused a lot of trouble and recounts the major plot points of the movie. Plus they pan around the asylum and show that there really was a fire, there actually is a cook missing one knife, Blue actually was stabbed, etc.

I have some trouble calling it original, too... seemed too pastiche-y to really be something special in my mind. Sure, combining mechs and WWI and zombies and girl power commandoes is unusual, but all of the elements are from other media.

Christian Lindke said...

If you don't agree with the fantasy scenario then you have to explain the fact that the billboard advertises that the destination of the bus is "paradise" and that Scott Glenn (the angel who only appears in fantasy sequences) is the driver.

I believe that each of the "girls" represents a different aspect of the real "Baby Doll's" personality. Rocket represents her idealized version of her younger sister, Sweat Pea represents her perception of herself as impotent protector, Blondie represents her inability to stand up to psychological abuse, Baby Doll represents her feeble attempts to use sexuality to protect her younger sister, and Amber represents her desire to be able to fly away from the situation.

I didn't find it pastiche-ey at all. It visually referred to other kick as chick fiction, only to deconstruct it.

David N. Scott said...

Don't really see what one has to do with the other - there are some strong hints that the ending is imagined, sure, but the fantasy sequences have a particular texture that is completely lacking in the post-lobotomy asylum scenes, and you don't see the angel then, either.

Again, it is clearly the psychiatrist (not madame) who tells the other dr about the escape, and it is clearly in asylum-world that we see the fire damage, etc. I find the idea that the ending possibly being unreal makes random other scenes unreal too a bit strange.

Christian Lindke said...

It's not the only interpretation, to be sure, but it does imply that everything after the end of act 1 is fantasy. I don't think it makes other scenes random or strange, as they follow the proper linear pattern, it just adds a new layer of fantasy after the lobotomy.

After all, the Sweat Pea scene at the end has the same color palette and texture as the other fantasy sequences. That doesn't mean no one escapes -- the person who inspired the Sweat Pea construct may well have -- it just means that we never see that escape.