'Sucker Punch' Becomes Commentary On Death Of Moviemaking

Sucker Punch is such a bad movie that it raises the bar for what counts as terrible. That's because there's a horrific genius in it. This film will crystallise for you all those half-formed thoughts about what's wrong with Hollywood.

The thing is, director Zack Snyder (300, Watchmen) has a feel for genre. He understands the crappiest aspects of it, anyway - the scenes of CGI-fluffed action interspersed with inexplicable infodumps and character development signaled by costume changes. And he's ably demonstrated his mastery by pouring everything he knows into a single, assaultive genre mashup flick. The worst part? He decided to turn the whole cruddy package into an art flick that comments on itself. Which means that all the fighter planes and zombie soldiers and stylised strippers are intensely boring.

But wait - there's more! That's right: Sucker Punch is a message movie. If you like licking the goo out of a dormitory shower drain, you're going to love the whack-a-mole subtlety of Snyder's social critique.

Spoilers ahead.

The plot of Sucker Punch unfolds with almost no dialogue, save for a voiceover about how sometimes angels come to Earth to save us. Protagonist and putative angel Babydoll is a 20-year-old woman with blonde pigtails who looks like a child. When her mother dies, Babydoll's evil stepfather kills her sister and frames her for it so he can send her to an insane asylum and inherit her mother's money. Just to make sure she'll be no trouble to him, stepdad bribes an abusive orderly named Blue to forge a doctor's signature on a lobotomy authorisation form. Babydoll has five days to escape before she'll be lobotomised.

Except instead of escaping to the world beyond her prison, Babydoll escapes to the worlds inside her head. First she converts the entire asylum into an imaginary whorehouse where she and the other inmates become strippers and sex workers who wear tiny outfits and dance for Blue's clientele. When the madame forces Babydoll to dance, she goes into another level of her fantasy world where she's a badass ninja (in an even tinier dress) fighting giant samurai, steampunk zombie soliders, dragons and robots. She tries to enlist the aid of her fellow inmates/whores in her escape plan, but one by one they're raped, tortured, killed or all three.

Let's start with the obvious

It's not hard to get the "incoming metaphor" message, so we're obliged to use a couple of brain cells to figure out the symbolism of placing a young woman in a mental institution that becomes a whorehouse that becomes a series of increasingly cheesy action movies.

A few possible interpretations are:

1. Insane people and sex workers are interchangeable. 2. Women can only triumph over adversity in their dreams. 3. Action movies spring from the imaginations of enslaved, mentally unstable prostitutes.

I could go on, but those seemed like the most obvious.

Is this movie Zack Snyder's masturbatory fantasy?

A lot of people have been asking this question, and I think the answer has to be no, unless Snyder has incredibly unsexy fantasies. Though this movie has women in tiny outfits, you're going to see less skin here than you would in an average episode of Baywatch. And unlike Baywatch, there's nothing fun to jack off to in Sucker Punch, unless you're into the sounds of an offscreen rape. There's no flirty winking at the audience, as you might expect in such a film, nor is there anything alluringly kinky. There's not even any stripping, though Babydoll's special power in whorehouse world is that she's such an amazing dancer that she can mesmerise anyone who watches her.

I'm sure Snyder thought he was incredibly clever for coming up with the idea that we'd never see Babydoll do one of her sexy dances. Instead, every time she starts to strip, she dives into one of the handful of ultra-fantasy action movie snippets that punctuate the film. We're not watching Babydoll strip - we're watching her slitting the throats of dragons and shooting enemy soldiers! I believe this is why Snyder has been telling interviewers (including io9's Alasdair Wilkins) that Sucker Punch is empowering to women.

But it's not empowering. Nor is it particularly degrading, either. It's just two empty stereotypes, the sexy whore and the action hero, hurled together to make a mess. Watching Babydoll transition from stripper to fighter feels like watching somebody hog a video game. Sure it looks kind of cool, but if you can't ever grab the controller and get invested in the avatars bouncing all over the screen, it's just boring and pointless after a few minutes.

The allegedly kickass action sequences

Until I saw Sucker Punch, I would have told you without any irony at all that there is nothing in this world more cool than a dragon fighting an aeroplane. I believe that so deeply that I own a DVD import of D-War, that monster movie where dragons fight helicopters, and I have watched it multiple times.

I also love pretty much every other genre that appears in the action sequences, from martial arts flick to war fantasy. Purely from a stylistic point of view, Snyder's done a good job putting together his genre mashups, especially when we get to the World War II planes fighting orcs in a Lord of the Rings universe. I wish he'd made an entire World War II in Middle Earth movie, just like Tolkien intended. As I mentioned earlier, Snyder knows his way around genre and there's some good concept design in these bits. But that's all they are: Bits. Babydoll and her friends jump into an action sequence, kill some monsters and get out.

Without any context or character development or sense of the worlds beyond these fight scenes, we're left with no emotional investment in Babydoll's success. The action is high but the stakes are non-existent. This problem bleeds over into the "real" whorehouse asylum world as well. We're never situated for long enough in a stable storyline to get emotionally engaged in what's happening.

To add insult to injury, the CGI is surprisingly lame in a lot of places - especially the sci-fi robot world - like a meh console game. So basically we get these perfect little encapsulations of everything that can go wrong with an action movie, namely that we care so little about the situation that the action feels lifeless. To top it off, there's no good fight choreography and the dragons are weak. Where's the Balrog when you need him? Oh I'm sorry - he's off in a movie full of characters you care about, in the middle of a quest narrative that speaks to real-life human experiences other than chewing old gum and stepping on ants for fun.

The main thing that's good about the action sequences is Scott Glenn's recurring role as the wise soldier who sends the women out on missions. He's doing his best David Carradine impression, and looks like he's having a blast as he delivers silly aphorisms and says things like, "You'll need to take two stones out of the dragon's neck and strike them together." Somewhere in the narrative murk of this movie there lurks a great genre parody, and Glenn is its star.

This is a failed movie about why movies fail

From the violence lite of its action sequences, to the Girl, Interrupted-meets-Burlesque atmosphere of the whorehouse asylum, Sucker Punch offers a perfect portrait of storytelling gone wrong. Even the movie's attempt to comment on the problems of storytelling goes wrong. We're supposed to ponder the artificiality of Babydoll's fantasy worlds, and perhaps question our investment in cartoonishly sexed-up female heroes. But the problem is that you can't comment on artificiality by deploying more artificiality. At some point, there has to be something real for us to believe in.

I'm not saying that Snyder should have been more realistic, or dressed Babydoll in fatigues. What this movie lacked was a belief in its characters' agency, their ability to choose their actions. Given that human agency is what drives most narratives, this leaves us with a story that bellyflops. In Sucker Punch, choice and freedom are represented by Babydoll's ability to insert herself into pre-made genre fantasies. Like I said earlier, these are costume changes, not narrative development.

The metaphors available to us after watching this film are sort of like a Banach-Tarski Paradox of restraint. Each time you try to take the restraints apart, they rebuild themselves into an even more enormous set of restraints until you have a cage the size of the sun that was somehow constructed from the surface area of a single spangle on the transparent stripper dress that Babydoll wears during her last adventure. We're watching Babydoll get smashed into narrative dead end after narrative dead end - until finally an icepick comes for her brain.

In the end, you'll wish snuff movies were among the genres that Sucker Punch shuffled into its psychedelic mix. Because reveling in death is less appalling than what Sucker Punch ultimately revels in: The destruction of consciousness itself. That's right - another message of the film is that Babydoll will be liberated by her lobotomy. She can live inside the climactic scene from a sucky action movie forever, facing down bad CGI robots and slitting the throats of baby dragons.

So should you go to see the movie this weekend?

Here is my question for you. Do you like watching mind-numbing entertainment that punches you in the face with a Special Message about how mind-numbing it is? If the answer is yes, then Sucker Punch is the right movie for you.


Comments

    Counterpoint: http://www.escapistmagazine.com/videos/view/escape-to-the-movies/2962-Sucker-Punch

    Also, "I wish he’d made an entire World War II in Middle Earth movie, just like Tolkien intended."

    "just like Tolkein intended."

    What?

      Didn't anyone tell you?

    Not to get in the way of your rant, but last I saw this movie had a PG rating and I'm sure most people could tell it's intended target audience was teenage girls. So should I expect a 'review' of the Justin Bieber movie next on kotaku?

      Agreed.

      Stick to games.

    I want to watch a movie about giant robot samurai guys and dragons and miniguns, not about girls being raped :(

      The only thing that I liked about this critique of the movie was that bit of information. I find it hard to see women get raped or brutalized in movies. Can't stand it. My wife thinks it is funny as hell but hey, I am a softy. So I will not be seeing this flick. Even if said rape is off cam and you get sound only. That is bad enough for me.

      I also hate seeing animals get killed in movies.

    This sounds like an incredibly weird movie.

    Liberation through lobotomy? A commentary on escaping reality through imagination? No thanks.

    well thankyou pal your rant of how this doesn't live up how films are supposed to be just rained a hefty stream of piss to my 'me wantee' need to see this film.
    If I want substance, story or moral imperatives i'll get it from international or independent cinema.
    For SP, let it be my guilty pleasure of action, fanlust and not much else inbetween, I know it's Hollywood and I don't fkn care.
    Then making your critical point of hate by raging on Snyder as SuckerPunch is his Wank fantasy, GO FUCK YOURSELF.

      Oh shut up. The movie is rubbish. With an average of 37 out of 100 on Metacritic, and 20% on rottentomatoes, it's a simple fact that it's a generally poor movie.

      Suckerpunch didn't get poor reviews due to "it's a mainstream hollywood film". It received poor reviews because it's shithouse.

      Get over it.

        Agreed. Shut up, Brett.

          LOL. You actually think that the RottenTomatoes score is representative of what a movie is worth?

          Put it this way: If a film received 100 reviews in which every critic gave it "59%", then RottenTomatoes would deliver unto that film a final score of "0%". Why? Because all RT does is aggregate a positive when a reviewers score is 60% or higher, and a negative otherwise.

          RottenTomatoes is complete rubbish, and it's HILARIOUS to see how many people cite it, like a courtroom exhibit, of "proof" that something is good/bad.

          Or to put it all another way: RT currently rates the Justin Bieber movie as "fresh".

    It sounds like he was annoyed that he did not get to see enough T&A in this flick. I know that is not the case, but that is what it sounds like. Also, the critique comes across a little too snobbish for a movie like this.

    If you were expecting something with more dialog, character interaction or a "brain food" movie then mate, you should have looked else where. This is a check your brain at the ticket counter movie. Nothing more.

    Should a flick like this get 5 out of 5. Hell no. It is a popcorn flick. It is not Cat On A Hot Tin Roof or Good Will Hunting....or even The Dark Knight for Christs sake.

    Don't listen to the children commenting who haven't even seen this "movie" yet... you hit the nail on the head. Terrific, well-thought-out review. "Sucker Punch" was a bewildering mess of twisted intentions gone awry. Its most obvious flaw was that it had seemingly nothing at stake, and no reason for the audience to invest in the characters. It was the loudest, most action-packed bore I've ever sat through.

    "I own a DVD import of D-War, that monster movie where dragons fight helicopters, and I have watched it multiple times."... And I should trust your opinion? lol.

      That Movie sounds Rad! im going to look it up now (^_^)

    (awkward monotone) I'm critiquing an action movie in a negative tone because it is not deep and meaningful. I am a professional.

      haha nice.

      What is wrong with everyone? Call me crazy but I see an action movie for, you know, ACTION! Eh, some people just always want too much I guess.

      For the record I think it's a good movie.

      I agree with this sentiment.

      It's easy to act superior and look down on an action movie for not having plot or by not trying to create an emotional connection with characters. I can just as easily say every independent film looks cheap and must have been made with a tiny budget.

      These films are what they are, to try and act superior to them by criticising them for these points, merely shows your naivety for expecting something different from them.

        Normally I would agree with you, but even by the standards of action movies, this movie really really fell short. It is just, plain boring. I went just expecting mindless action, but it didn't even deliver that. It was really the crappiest thing I have seen in a long time. It makes Tranformers 2 seem like a great film.

      As always, people will see what they want to see. The review of the movie seems pretty balanced because it explains why the movie bombs. The action is weightless without character investment.

      I don't want to come down on the reviewer too hard here and seem mean, but I think it should also be pointed out that this is the same author that compared Neon Genesis Evangelion to Twilight. Enough said.

    I think this movie looks great

    I'm currently doing an essay on Hyper-Reality, Virtual-Reality and Simulation (For third year uni). So I've been looking into a lot of films that have such themes and to be honest, the overall quality of the story telling in such films really does seem to have dropped. There is the odd acception, but most really seem to take the wacky and bizarre dream-like state to far.

    There's all types of wankers in this world, the worst are the opinionated ones.

    I haven't seen Sucker Punch, I don't want to see it and this review sums up exactly how I would've felt about it.

    Don't get me wrong, I'm no stranger to cheesy action flicks. Of the 500+ movies I have, the ones that get the most play time are the over-the-top 80's-90's action flicks involving Seagal, Van Damme, Arnie, Lundgren, Stallone and those of their ilk (and of course, some good ol' Hong Kong action John Woo films) as well as a HUGE collection of B-Z grade horror films. I love cheese, both in my films and on my food. But this film from day one screamed to me "Snyder's lowest point as an awesome director." This review has definitely pointed out everything I thought would be wrong with the film.

    So thank you, Annalee. Saved me some time when friends ask me if I've seen Sucker Punch.

    I know this is usually a /v/ thing but...

    VIDEO GAMES!

    The only thing I hate more than a pretentious movie is a pretentious movie reviewer who drops consciously drops terms like "Banach-Tarski Paradox" like it's no biggie, but also happens to hyperlink it (See? Check it out! It's reaaall!)

    At the risk of coming off as a complete sexist pig, this reviewer is just having a whiny fit about the objectification of women, even though there are far, FAR worse and more exploitative pictures out there.

    Is making long-winded, ranty 'reviews' of new movies topical now?

    On the plus side, this article wasn't another endless Bashcraft fluff piece about Japan.

    On the minus, who cares?

    This is an action movie.......ACTION! *sigh*

    Will watch now.

    Wow, so many people butthurt about this movie getting shit reviews. This director is generally quite poor everywhere but style but I guess he appeals to the masses.
    I was one of the few people that couldn't stand 300 because it was probably the dumbest fucking movie I ever saw and I had such high hopes given the beautiful cinematography. This looks like more of the same.
    Watchmen was only good because it was already written by Alan Moore and, though the intro was sweet, the rest of the movie kind of failed to live up to the graphic novel.

    This was a good review, it echoes the same things I've been hearing about SP on other sites and it backs them up well.
    If you think action movie = meaningless piece of shit then you should just avoid reviews because you clearly have no interest in exploring the meaning or rationale behind films (what reviews do). Just watch the movie and don't complain that people who study the medium have reasons to hate it.

    There's more great SUCKER PUNCH commentary here:

    http://thescorecardreview.com/articles/he-said-she-said/2011/04/12/he-said-he-said-sucker-punch/19312

    There are plenty of good reviews of this movie.
    But I think some critics have got it way wrong. Especially those dismissing it as supposedly 'sexist' - hilarious! They have simply been PWNED. Just like they were back in 1997, when many of them accused director Paul Verhoeven of fascism when he released Starship Troopers. LOL.
    Anyway, some more good reviews...

    http://www.tsode.com/blog/general/obsessed-with-sucker-punch/

    A lot of bad reviews of this film surprisingly seem to have missed the rather obvious metaphors and as a result come off as even more stupid than the stupid film they comment on. This reviewer is not guilty of THAT.

    But Annalee, you say in your review that you own copies of b-movies about dragons that fight hellicopters and watch them repetedly, and still you have a hard time accepting this movie because of it's flaws and i find that strange. I wonder why people who like watching wierd, kitchy movies have a hard time giving Sucker Punch the same pass it would get if it was a low budget film from japan or korea? I'm sure you would agree that this movie has an interesting and experimental premise and that it's visually stunning, and it combines genres in a way that is usually only found in rare b-movies in the back of some seedy import video store. Is it really not possible to enjoy it because of those things just because it's a hollywood movie released in theaters around the world?

    What I find most strange is that when you watch b-movies, it's somehow ok that the script and the whole production is inane and completely unselfconsciously crazy. You, as the viewer, can be aware of that and enjoy the movie because of how gloriously wierd it is despite the lack of any intelligent winks from the movie makers. But when it comes to big budget movies, you are required to take a stance against anything with even a hint of idiocy.

Join the discussion!