"Sucker Punch" - 2011
Dir. by Zack Snyder - 1 hr. 49 min.
SPOILER WARNING - I'm in the unique (for me) position of having seen something before the actual release date, but I'm going to write as I normally would, which includes specific discussion about scenes and plot points along the way. You might want to bookmark this and check it out after you've seen "Sucker Punch" for yourself.
As spectacle films veer closer and closer to animation (and I don't know how you could argue they're not - either you have live actors doing things or you are creating them out of pixels or paint or whatever, which is animation), they also pick up some of the more troubling aspects of less-than-awesome animated films. Namely, that the story is gibberish and the visuals are expected to carry the entire experience. When both ends hold up, you get things in the realm of the Pixar movies. Even if the stories are fairly basic, but executed in an enjoyable manner, you can get a fun film like "Despicable Me."
As if that wasn't enough of a preamble, this film has also picked up some of the less-than-desirable traits of video game films (the only one that I have seen that didn't entirely suck was "Scott Pilgrim," and I think that had something to do with the source material being graphic novels that had video game elements, rather than what seems like the folly of trying to convert an active experience (playing a game) into a passive one (watching a film)). Video games can overcome a weak story by virtue of the player actually being involved in whatever action is going on, whereas a movie has to actually get into your head and get viewers to care about the characters.
Enough with the broad strokes. Here's what this movie did well: Zack Snyder has a fantastic, stylized visual sense. And that has not deteriorated at all. I don't mean to denigrate him (or his cohorts) by calling this sort of film animation - it's not a dirty word in my book. But making the fantasy sequences in "Sucker Punch" is no different than what the "Shrek" animators do. This movie is going to look hot as shit on your big screen in hi def, no question. I also always enjoy Carla Gugino, and this was no exception. And that's it.
As for the flip side of the coin, the story is a mess. Not only is there not any reason to care about any of the main characters (in particular, Baby Doll (played by Emily Browning) is as two-dimensional as she could be while wearing a push-up bra and schoolgirl outfit), what's there is kind of despicable. Baby Doll is introduced reacting to her mother's death, fending off some kind of attack from her step-father (a lot of things are poorly implied, presumably due to the PG-13 rating, which I'll get to in a bit), and tries to take revenge on him with a pistol. But she's such a shitty shot that she somehow murders her little sister (a diagram or something might have helped - the camera shots were more confusing than useful). And this gets her thrown in an insane asylum, all while an awful version of the Eurythmics' "Sweet Dreams" plays (and I'll get around to the soundtrack in a bit, too).
Literally every character is a cardboard cutout. There are vague references to the pasts of the characters, but there's no real attempt to emotionally engage the viewer. It's nearly supremely lazy storytelling, on a Michael Bay level. The only thing that I really enjoyed about the characters is that the girls seemed to have names you might give a dog or a hamster (Baby Doll, Rocket, Sweet Pea, Blondie, etc.).
Beyond that, I have three issues: soundtrack, PG-13 rating, and sublimation.
Soundtrack: was awful. I kind of wanted to throw a swear in there as well, but I'll leave it at that. If you want to see your favorite songs turned into abortions, this might be the soundtrack for you. The previously mentioned "Sweet Dreams" was a problem, I hated the cover of the Stooges' "Search and Destroy," the remix of Bjork's "Army of Me" was passable, but the real problem I had is the use of a new cover version of the Pixies' "Where Is My Mind?" Sometimes, a song is used so perfectly in a film that it will forever be associated with that scene. And then that song should be forever retired from inclusion in other films, unless you're actually referencing the previous, perfect use. When I hear "Where Is My Mind?" it just makes me aware that I'm not watching "Fight Club," and in this case, that I wish I was watching "Fight Club" instead. I highly doubt that was the goal here, so it's worth mentioning as a moment of film-making failure. This isn't the only film I've seen this mistake in recently, but it's still frustrating.
PG-13 rating: is stupid to pursue in a movie about hyper-violence and sexual slavery. I know, I know, it's all about luring teens into the theatre and getting their dollars. But why even try to make a story that you're not going to be able to tell in any meaningful way? There is a scene in the film (one of the fantasy scenes) where the girls have to go murder a baby dragon in its nest, literally slitting it's throat, going elbow-deep in it's throat, and taking fire-starting crystals from within the baby dragon. How is this appropriate for a 13-year old? And who the hell am I supposed to be rooting for, anyways? But worth noting, there's no blood at all. I guess dragons, even flayed open, don't bleed. Oh yeah, the girls follow it up with murdering the baby's justifiably angry mother dragon, too. Awesome.
Sublimation: is a psychological concept from Sigmund Freud, explaining that since there is a limited outlet for libidinal energy, that energy is channeled through other, non-libidinal activities and pursuits. And this movie has a bad, unhealthy case of sublimation. Despite using the schoolgirl/Lolita thing as the sole inspiration for costuming, this is a movie that's very, very afraid of sexuality. All of the male characters in the film are vile, overweight, and exploitative, except for the pimp character, who is just vile and exploitative. And the women! Every time Baby Doll dances, she immediately leaves the real world and is transported into a fantasy/video game reality where she hacks the shit out of everything with a big sword. And I mean immediately - you never, ever see her dance. Everyone else in the movie is blown away by her moves, but for the viewers, even the slightest whiff of sexuality is diverted into a curious hyper-violent scenario, where everything dies but nothing bleeds.
And "Sucker Punch" goes to great lengths to make sure that you still get all of the physical action without any consequence. The first fantasy sequence involves steam-driven Nazi zombies, who expire not with a spray of blood, but a hiss of escaping steam. The second sequence is the one with the dragons, who don't bleed but instead are comprised of a viscous goo. The third is a bomb sequence (with a predictably spectacular explosion), but the girls fight a bunch of robots who don't give up even so much as a drop of oil when hacked up or shot at. This entire movie is a confused world with sexless sex and bloodless death, bouncing back and forth between the two.
I'm completely capable of enjoying a film that's nothing more than a visual spectacle. But basic competence in making that sort of movie means that you can't do things that are actively stupid, distracting, and off-putting. Visually, this movie is worth checking out, but there were so many big negatives along the way that I couldn't really recommend it.
1.5 / 5 - Theatre