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Kim Voynar

By Kim Voynar

Somewhat in Defense of Sucker Punch (Well, Parts of It, Anyway …)

It will probably surprise you to learn that, for all its flaws, I kind of dug Sucker Punch. Or rather, I like the idea of Sucker Punch a lot, and I like parts of how it was executed. Visually, it’s pretty stunning. Loved the desaturated and tinted tones, loved the hair and makeup (yes, even the many false eyelashes), loved the costuming (and look forward to seeing gangs of roving teenage cosplayers lovingly recreating those costumes at cons over the next year).

I loved the movie’s opener, which in many respects evokes the opener for Watchmen, which was also brilliant … and was also, as is the case with Sucker Punch, the best part of that film.

Those opening minutes nail exactly what Snyder wants this film to be — highly stylized storytelling told almost entirely by stunning visuals, a very specific aesthetic to the makeup and hair and costume design, set in a Steampunk world. The music is relentless and pounding and urgent and very effective if you like that sort of music, which I do.

Unfortunately, Snyder doesn’t execute the rest of the film with the visual storytelling panache he uses in those opening minutes. Somewhere along the way, he loses the idea of “story” and becomes absorbed in the idea of “video game.” I don’t know if that was his idea, or if the studio was putting his nuts in a vise about simplifying a video game tie-in, but once you get past the opener, the rest of the film feels very much like a series of video game vignettes told in “story mode” that were filmed expressly so they can be lifted directly into a game.

For future reference? This really isn’t a good idea.

If the whole movie had been like that opening sequence, if Snyder’s storytelling had stayed that pure and literary, and if he’d developed the characters enough to make us really invested in what happens to them, Sucker Punch would have been a hell of a good film. Instead, it’s an interesting idea with some nice character design and not enough emotional connection.

The main character, Baby Doll (Emily Browning, also singing on a few of the songs on the hard rocking soundtrack), is slapped into what appears to be a privately-run insane asylum. Apparently, there are no checks and balances in place in the world of this tale to prevent abuses from happening.

If there are such checks and balances, the funds with which to enforce them were cut from the budget by the Republicans, leaving guys like The Doctor to lobotomize sexy, obviously innocent schoolgirls. So, okay, we can buy that abuses of power might happen in a place like a scary, Gothic-looking, home for the insane in remote Vermont in what’s apparently the 1950s, sure.

We could even buy that there’s some back story in which Baby Doll’s mother was maybe forced to marry Evil Stepfather so he could (it’s implied) kill her and get her inheritance, and that when the shit hit the fan, Baby Doll went all “Janie’s Got a Gun” on him and accidentally killed her beloved sister, and that Evil Stepfather used this to toss her into said corrupt insane asylum, where for a few bucks, a loving Evil Stepdad can get his recently motherless, grieving young stepdaughter lobotomized by a creepy doctor (Jon Hamm).

It’s around here that it starts to get complicated and twisty-turny, as Baby Doll deals with the trauma of the situation in which she finds herself by slipping into an elaborate fantasy world in which she imagines that she and the other young girls imprisoned in this insane asylum are being held captive as sex slaves, where they are forced to learn sexy dances and perform them for clients, who then pay for further … services. And Baby Doll’s been reserved for a big spending client, the High Roller (also Hamm).

In this fantasy, Baby Doll leads the other girls — the reluctant Sweet Pea (Abbie Cornish in a rather odd choice of role for her that makes me wonder if maybe this project was pitched as being more literary than the execution would imply), her bold, sassy sister Rocket (Jena Malone, ditto), and the barely developed characters of Amber (Jamie Chung) and the brunette Blondie (High School Musical’s Vanessa Hudgens, terribly out of her league here opposite the likes of Cornish and Malone).

Look, I’m not going to get into the whole bullshit argument about whether Sucker Punch is exploitative of women because the women in the film are essentially sex slaves. I mean first, they aren’t in a burlesque bordellow, they are inmates in this insane asylum and the whole movie is a fantasy that exists in Baby Doll’s head, with the added layer of fantasy that Baby Doll slips further into with the girls whenever they’re executing one of the tasks on their video game-centric to-do lists. Which isn’t in and of itself a bad idea, but from a story standpoint, you have to figure out whether your story exists ONLY in your main character’s head, or if it’s a collective fantasy they’re all enacting together, in really breaking out of the asylum.

See, the biggest problem the story has is that every time Baby Doll and Co. slip into that second level of fantasy world, there’s an immediate disconnect between what they’re doing in fantasy (slaying dragons or zombies or what have you) and what’s happening in reality, where there should be some very real consequences like death or being locked in solitary or being severely beaten or dismembered — to getting caught. And when the shit does start to go down, it’s frustratingly unclear what real events actually happening in the real world are underlying the fantasy.

Look, I’m glad to see Snyder doing something kind of crazy and out there, and there’s enough female empowerment in the story, even as flawed as it is, for me to not particularly care about the burlesque stuff. Hell, I like burlesque. I wanted to see more burlesque in this film! I wanted to see all the girls’ dance routines, especially Baby Doll’s! If you’re going to make your fantasy world one in which the person having the fantasy sees herself as imperiled and in danger of having her virginity auctioned off to the highest bidder, and build this whole steampunky-burlesque world in which your characters kick ass while scantily clad, then for God’s sake, man, just execute it and OWN it.

The thing is, what Snyder’s going for here from a literary standpoint is actually pretty complicated to execute. Snyder shares co-writer credit here with Steve Shibuya, but really what he really needed was a stronger writer — a master storyteller — to give him a better framework around which to execute his rather brilliant visual ideas.

Imagine this story in the hands of Guillermo de Toro (dark and twisted) or Charlie Kaufman (weird, but he excels at that story-within-a-story fantasy stuff) or Tarsem Singh (dark and intricate and fantastical and twisted) or even Michael Chabon (excellently literary, and he’s smart with the fantastical as well). Imagine any of them telling this story, but married with the Steampunk-y, desaturated aesthetic Snyder’s imagined here.

Yeah. It could’ve been a great movie.

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5 Responses to “Somewhat in Defense of Sucker Punch (Well, Parts of It, Anyway …)”

  1. Don R. Lewis says:

    The opening of SUCKER PUNCH isn’t as similar to WATCHMEN as it is to Aerosmith’s JANIES GOT A GUN music video 😉

  2. Kim Voynar says:

    Don, it was similar to Watchmen in that it set up the back story with a strong musical anchor. I referenced the Janie music vid later in the piece.

  3. Lisa says:

    I’ve been waiting to read your review of Sucker Punch for some time. You’ve kind of become my go-to gal to gauge the level of feminist outrage I should apply to my lens when I have a question about a film. Given what you wrote about about anime regarding Hit-Girl, I’m not entirely surprised to read this opinion.

    I guess I am torn and frustrated by Snyder in the same way I am with Tyler Perry. It’s sad that these mediocre filmmakers are some of the only ones creating films that offer lead roles to some of the most talented actresses of our day. Why does it have to be either great material but you have to play second fiddle to the leading guy (I’m looking at you, Pixar) or take lead roles in scripts with limited psychological complexity (Sucker Punch, Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland, all of the Tyler Perry films)?

  4. Kim Voynar says:

    The thing is, I don’t think Zack Snyder’s a bad director. He’s not afraid to take chances and go for stuff that’s kinda weird and out there and not the same-old, same-old everyone else is doing.

    I am getting frustrated with him continually not quite nailing it, though. There are flashes of brilliance here and there but then he does stupid shit like overplaying the videogame aesthetic and neglecting tightening up the storytelling that are, really, basic level mistakes that are beneath a director of his caliber. So what the hell? Are there too many chefs throwing ideas and influence into the pot? Because a lot of SUCKER PUNCH felt that way to me. Ditto WATCHMEN. Because if the more significant problems in SUCKER PUNCH are there because it was Snyder’s vision that it be executed in that way, well, that might indicate that he just might not ever have had what we thought was there.

    Tim Burton … look. I think with Burton, he is what he is and you either dig that or you don’t. For me, he’s gotten a little complacent and indulgent and it’s going to take him reaching for the next level, whatever that is for him, before I think I’ll be blown away by his work again.

    As for Tyler Perry, well, he’s kind of a niche in and of himself at this point, n’est-ce pas? I’ve written before about how I feel that certain of Perry’s works — specifically the Madea films — are so culturally specific that they both isolate a broader audience and make it difficult, if not impossible, for white critics to review them in a relevant way.

    Perry for me falls in the same category of certain of the more obscure French or German or Brit directors — you either get them or you don’t (and I wouldn’t put Daddy’s Little Girls in the same category as the Madea films, either.)

  5. Cedrick Rohrig says:

    It’s interesting that so many comments seem to focus on me getting sued. I can’t really say I understand the attitude that completely reprogramming something bought at a profit, without EULA, without any contract etc.. should attract a lawsuit.

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