Friday, March 25, 2011

Sucker Punch: A Review

"If you don't stand for something, you'll fall for anything."

The Wiseman in Sucker Punch (2011)

I was unprepared alright - unprepared for so much suck, that is.

"If you don't stand for something, you'll fall for anything," warned the Wiseman (Scott Glenn) in Zack Snyder's much awaited 2011 motion picture, Sucker Punch. That's what he does awkwardly throughout the film - spout fortune cookie bon mots and provide lumpy blocks of exposition. Anyhow, this is one advice I'll take. After I exited the theatre, I immediately began composing a glowing apologist's review defending Mr Snyder's latest work in my head (against all the savage criticisms which I just know will be directed at it) but after some thoughts, I reconsidered my tune. Yes, Sucker Punch was my most anticipated movie of the year and yes, I am very fond of Zack's previous directorial efforts (all of 'em) - but I fear this longtime fanboy has to make a stand here. Sucker Punch is terrible, ladies and gents, and there are not many people more disappointed than I am.

What Didn't Suck.

Still, there's something to be said about a director who is truly passionate about the films he makes. Zack Snyder is one of the most enthusiastic filmmakers I know - and it lent even Sucker Punch some measure of that charm. That's why my first instinct was to try and review it favourably. There are some genuinely good words I can put in for it, and most of them are in praise of the action sequences. They are Snyder's forte and he couldn't be in better form here. The wordless prologue, zombie trenches and samurai courtyard set pieces were bad-ass, but the runaway bomb train bot-killing smorgasbord was sublime; pure poetry in Snyder's trademark ramped slow-motion.

There are small visual flairs I really enjoyed like how the steam gushes out of the clockwork, steam-powered zombies when they are stabbed or shot, and I liked the cute girly cellphone dangly baubles attached to Baby Doll's handguns as well. There's also a pretty neat trick shot of the girls sitting at their dressing tables and apparently existing on both sides of their mirrors, but I think it's more of a cinematographical look-at-what-I-can-do rather than a metaphor for something more profound.

Most importantly, if it's not for this film, I wouldn't have been able to see Emily Browning in a sexy Japanese sailor schoolgirl outfit and knee socks. If that's not a plus, I don't know what is.

Baby Doll is Hot Stuff
The obscenely gorgeous Emily Browning as Baby Doll.

The rest of this review will and must contain spoilers.

What Did Suck.

The maggot-ridden, pus-filled, festering core of Sucker Punch is the screenplay written cooperatively by Snyder himself and Steve Shibuya, and it marks the first time Snyder makes an attempt at creating something entirely original and non-derivative. He succeeded masterfully in doing the exact opposite. The resulting mess is a schizophrenic geeksploitation flick which blatantly regards itself as being oh-so-cool and oh-so-clever. It has hot girls in fetishistic outfits, giant mechanical samurai warriors, orcs, androids, steampunk WWI zombies German soldiers, a battle mecha, a plane dogfighting a dragon, and enough firepower to take over a Banana Republic. The only thing that's missing is coherence, and I suspect it's dead in a ditch somewhere with multiple penetrative wounds.

Bunny Mecha
Jamie Chung as Amber.

"But all of this happens in the heads of a bunch of institutionalised hotties in a mental asylum!" squeaks the part of my mind which still wants to rationalise the film's flaws. It's true that it's more surrealistic than Inception (which had been criticised for its overly ordered dream world), a film it bore a great deal of resemblance to - and in like fashion, the girls' delusions also penetrates more than one level of consciousness. The difference is that in Inception, that feature is plot relevant whereas in the feverish world of Sucker Punch, it's used with the sole purpose of excusing the disjointed fantasy elements which Snyder borrowed liberally from pop culture. Not that there's anything wrong with that, but it takes a master writer to tie everything together neatly - and Snyder is no master writer. I get it that when Baby Girl (played by the sexier than ever Emily Browning) dances in the brothel in delusion level one, it's represented as balls-to-the-wall, kick-ass fight scenes in delusion level two, but boy it felt like a cop out. There's just no way that Baby Girl can dance as hypnotically as it was implied she could and Snyder knew it; hence the conspicuous absence of actual dancing. I mean, after every time she "dances", all the men in the room looks as if semen is about to explode out of their eyes.

"But that's also part of her delusion!" the fanboy lobe of my brain protests. Agreed, but what is her dancing analogous to in the bleak real world of the mental hospital where everything takes place? And more importantly, why is Baby Doll hallucinating when she is not actually insane, and was only put there by her evil stepfather to silence her via a lobotomy? I smell a hole in the plot here. Perhaps, as it was implied by the Baby Doll's dreary pseudo-intellectual existentialist voiceover at the film's climax; it's not her story after all. Maybe it was all seen from Sweet Pea's perspective. But it was said that Sweet Pea was only in the nuthouse slash nightclub in the first place to protect her little sister, so she's not crazy either. Or maybe that's not true after all because that story was told in delusion level one. They may not even be sisters... Oh fuck this shit. I give up.

I correctly predicted that a certain character will snitch on the girls' plan to escape and I totally called the death of another character far ahead of time - and I managed to do it because Snyder and Shibuya set them up with such breathtakingly amateur clumsiness. My more charitable review would have referred to his lack of finesse as "foreshadowing" but even so, I must consider them very poorly done. And do you know what's worse than a bad writer? A bad writer who thinks he's a good one. Sweet Pea's extensive faux-philosophical monologue about destiny et cetera is a good example of such immodest masturbation. So was Scott Glenn's inexplicable appearance at the end as a creepily benevolent bus driver (I believe the expected reaction is "Holy Shit!" but I was all "What the fuck?"). When the movie speaks directly to the audience, telling that it's us who decide our fates, I bemoan mine. It felt like it was telling me, to my face, that it's my own fault I'm watching such a shitty movie.

Abbie Cornish and Skanks
Sweet Pea (Abbie Cornish), with her sister, Rocket (Jena Malone) on her right. P.S. I really like her hair.

I wish a competent screenwriter was brought on to look through the script and make improvements. All the main characters are worse than one-dimensional and I wondered why Baby Doll getting lobotomised is such a big deal when she has absolutely no personality to begin with. Yes, I don't blame the actors. It's obviously Zack and Steve's fault when even really good actors like Scott Glenn, Carl Gugino and Abbie Cornish performed flatly. Except maybe Oscar Isaac, who played Blue, the main antagonist. Boy, he sucked. He's almost all ham; more whiny than threatening and more spoilt than evil. And John Hamm's appearance right at the very end as the lobotomist was simply painful to watch. He pretty much only had one line: an expression of puzzlement at something in Baby Doll's eyes which he had to repeat ad nauseam.

Could the film had been rescued with some judicious rewrites? I believe so; I saw much potential in it. For example, why was so little attention paid to the the tragedy of Baby Doll who only wanted to protect her little sister from her paedophile stepfather but accidentally killed her in a gunshot which went wide? She didn't even spend one moment processing it. There's also Blue's pervy infatuation with Baby Doll which showed shades of something interesting (especially at the end), but nothing was really made of that either.

The soundtrack consists of mostly refreshing remixed covers of oldie goodies - some of which are performed by Emily Browning like Eurythmics Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This) - and I was pleasantly surprised to hear EmilĂ­ana Torrini's rendition of White Rabbit playing at one point as I am a fan of her music. My complaints? Most of the songs don't belong in this film and Snyder kept sticking them where they don't belong. They blare out noxiously and anachronistically like musical sore thumbs. While similar criticisms were levelled at Snyder's playlist in Watchmen, I was one of those who thought his song choices were suitable if eclectic there (and I stand by that opinion). This time? Not so much.

The Punchline.

For some reason, Sucker Punch felt incomplete to me; like there's a lot more footage which didn't make the cut, but that's probably just wishful thinking. And if I'm not such a big fan of Zack Snyder, I definitely would have enjoyed Sucker Punch as a trashy, B-grade so-bad-it's-good film - much like I did Legion and D-War. Maybe, as suggested by the Long-Suffering Girlfriend™, I ruined the film for myself by having unrealistic expectations (she saw it with me and liked it) but I disagree because I expected just as much of Watchmen (!), and that movie totally delivered. Perhaps, I should have given it less thought and rode it like the mindless video game trailer it aspires to be, but remember, I'm asking for coherence, not profundity. To expect any less is an insult to the memory of the director's fantastic filmography. For the remainder of his career (for his and this fan's sake), Snyder should stick to adapting comic books or directing screenplays written by others.

That being said, there's a very high chance I will revisit Sucker Punch. Even though it's mostly garbage, it's still a breathtakingly beautiful waste of time.

P.S. We went and saw The Eagle immediately after that. It was pretty damn good.

Suckered but unpunched,
k0k s3n w4i


Michelle Chin said...

Well, it's called sucker punch for a reason! To suck and to punch the suckiness right in your face!

McGarmott said...

Awesome, I've been waiting to watch Kevin McDonald's next film! (Yeah, the only line in your review that concerned me was your P.S., lol.)

k0k s3n w4i said...

Michelle: i might just watch bitch slap next.

McGarmott: well, it's good but rather forgettable, and it could have used a more charismatic lead - but jamie bell, mark strong and donald sutherland all turned in decent-to-good performances. i'm a great fan of anything roman, and i wish hollywood would adapt robert harris' imperium (and sequels) about the life of cicero. i think it would make for a great period political drama piece.

McGarmott said...

The thing about Robert Harris though is that his books seem to me to tell interesting stories with an uninteresting plotline. I don't really have much to go with stating that since I've only ever read Pompeii and currently in the middle of Lustrum. In the case of Pompeii I was greatly disappointed because I was somewhat obsessed with the story of the Vesuvius eruption and thought this would be great drama but the drama to me wasn't all that great in the novel.

Then there are the movie adaptations. Roman Polanski, of course, was attached to direct Harris's Pompeii, but that fell apart and he would later direct Harris' The Ghost instead (film was renamed The Ghost Writer), which again, same feeling, it was an interesting story, but such a dreary plotline, wasted good actors in it. And previously there was Enigma, which had good actors and actresses and yet another boring storyline that I can't remember anything about now.

Again, it's probably just me. I know there are people who like his works, and those movies.

nis said...

the dance was erotic. 'nuff said

Anonymous said...

The dances are the therapy. Do you remember the stage in the theater?

The girls were supposed to reenact their trama. either violence or sexual abuse.

Now you can see that the orderlys were watching all this. If a girl turns them on then they will sneak them away and rape them.

The montage after Babydoll gets to the place shows that Blue rapes her in the bathroom, she is later found in the fantasy of the brothel weeping.

k0k s3n w4i said...

McGarmott: i'm not a fan of robert harris' writing style and i disliked pompeii as well - but i found imperium to be a thoroughly engrossing read (i suppose you have read the book?). its sequel, lustrum, is no where near as good though - but i'll definitely read the third book when it turns up. i consider harris to be the neil gaiman of historical fiction in my mind. gaiman's stories aren't very good reads but once interpreted through the eyes of a good filmmaker or comic artist, they can be amazing.

nis: i want to see that! i read that they had dance lessons and dance choreography in production... where are they? that's why the film felt incomplete, i think.

Anonymous: my interpretation was that blue did not try to do anything to baby doll until after she was lobotomised - he was "keeping her" for the high roller (lobotomist), so to speak. the rationale being that she cannot resist or tell on him after her mind is gone. she cried because she accidentally killed her own sister and was wrongly incarcerated in a mental asylum, i thought. considering how unsubtle a storyteller the director is (he spelt out the film's themes at the end at least three times in the most ham-fisted ways possible), i doubt there's much to read between the lines at all.

Anonymous said...

I firmly believe the subtext of the film's plot adequately articulates why most people didn't like this film.
I'll leave it up to you to figure out what exactly I mean by that.
Honestly, if you expected anything more than a simple plot with fantastic visuals/action- well the joke's on yoy, so go right ahead and regurgitate that 'lives up to it's name' line for the four millionth time. You're not doing your IQ any favors. This film was not difficult to grasp, whatsoever. Pretty simple, and straight-forward and if you have an IQ of at least 130 it's not going to give you a headache trying to make sense of it. It's a movie, not string theory people.

k0k s3n w4i said...

Anonymous: and you, sir, is a retard.

what what? i thought we are in an insult contest where we ignore all the concerns and arguments the other party brought up... because you certainly didn't address any of mine and go straight to insinuating that my intelligence is lacking.

"Honestly, if you expected anything more than a simple plot with fantastic visuals/action- well the joke's on yoy"

no, i expected a coherent plot with fantastic visuals/action with dialogues that don't make my ears bleed. if it's complex and coherent; awesome. if it's simple and coherent; great. sucker punch is needlessly complex and incoherent. i can divine the filmmaker's intentions easily enough, but it would be nice if they are told more expertly on-screen. poor writing is abound within the script. there's that scene where baby doll just pops into frame abruptly and awkwardly when rocket was telling sweet pea about how baby doll rescued her from the cook. how contrived. then, there's also that clumsy bit of exposition when blue and the stepfather stupidly conspired within earshot of baby doll. and let's not talk about how lamely this was hinted at earlier when blue went, "yes, we talked on the phone." it was so poorly conceived that i half-expected him to outright wink.

i explained to great lengths why i, a long-time fan of zack snyder, thought that this film is bad. you essentially waltzed in here and pretty much tell me i'm stupid for not liking a film your simple-mind did - all without refuting any of my points.

P.S. an iq of 130 denotes superior intelligence; an advantage i am certain that you do not possess.

Anonymous said...

" my interpretation was that blue did not try to do anything to baby doll until after she was lobotomised - he was "keeping her" for the high roller (lobotomist), so to speak. the rationale being that she cannot resist or tell on him after her mind is gone"

I don't think that is the case here, as Blue said in exasperation after he kissed BabyDoll "this is not right" etc etc indicating that he expects her to NOT be a vegetable when hes about to get his way on her.

well that is my understanding at least, as I understand Zack Snyder made this an open ended film to invoke people's creativity to spend much of our time creating alternate endings and explanations.

-Not the same anon

k0k s3n w4i said...

Anonymous: i have a more straightforward reading of that scene. he kissed a "vegetable" and just didn't like it. it's in line with baby girl's earlier promise that he'll never get her.