There have always been films through the years which will garner extreme reactions from its audiences. These reactions will always take two sides on the film. People who see these films will either love them or they will hate them. There is to be little to no middle ground reaction when it comes to these films. In 2009, we had James Cameron’s epic scifi Avatar which had two sets of fans. Those who loved it to the point that it transcended simple fandom into something these people thought as important. Then there were the vocal minority who absolutely hated the film. Whether both fans were right in their opinions was (and continues) to be irrelevent. All that mattered to these people was that they’re right and the other side was wrong.
2011 is entering it’s second season and a film finally arrived which seem to have elicited the same sort of reaction from people who have seen it. Sure, there’s some who saw it merely as entertainment and left it at that, but there’s a growing rift between those who loved the film and those who hated it. The film which seem to have caused this is the action-fantasy film Sucker Punch.
To say that Zack Snyder’s latest visual extravaganza would create discussion amongst filmgoers would be an undertstatement. Sucker Punch has arrived to much genre fandom fanfare. This was a film that seemed to take genres from all corners like scifi, fantasy, anime and manga and mashed them all up into something new and serving it up to the legion of fans who love those very things. Zack Snyder has made his reputation as a filmmaker as a visual artist. His entire filmography from the Dawn of the Dead remake all the way up to his adaptation of the Alan Moore graphic novel Watchmen have all been very strong visually. His grasp of narrative structure continues to grow and improve but it’s always been his handling of dialogue which has tripped him up.
Sucker Punch is a tale within a tale about a young woman we come to know as Baby Doll (played with an almost angelic quality by Emily Browning). The film opens up with the curtain rising on a theater stage and we soon become witness to a dialogue-free opening sequence of the events which transpired to bring Baby Doll to the Lennox House mental institution. This entire opening sequence is a great example of Snyder as a master of creating a montage of striking visuals sans dialogue with only music to break the silence. It helped that the music chosen to accompany this scene was a haunting rendition by Emily Browning herself of the Eurythmics’ “Sweet Dreams (Are Made of These)”. Just like in Watchmen‘s own intro title sequence, Snyder was able to convey the beginnings of the story without the need for dialogue and do it so well that we as an audience understand fully all that’s transpiring on the screen.
Once this prologue ends we move onto the main setting of the film where Baby Doll gets put into the care of the Lennox House’s resident boogeyman in the form of Blue as played with slimy charm and panache by one Oscar Isaac (last scene chewing up the English countryside in Ridley Scott’s Robin Hood). The audience sees what Baby Doll sees as Blue gives her the tour of the facilities which finally ends at the “Theater” where all the female patients act out their problems and fears through the guidance and help of Doctor Gorski (played by the lovely and return Snyder performer, Carla Gugino).
The first 15 minutes of this film was pretty much a basic set-up of what Snyder will use as his blueprint for the rest of the film. All the different levels of fantasy Baby Doll will imagine and inhabit throughout the film is rooted deeply in this initial sequence of events which begins the film. The clues as to who the story is truely about could be found in this intro if one was paying attention to the film instead of being distracted and mesmerized by the visuals Snyder crafts to start the film. While it won’t become apparent until the reveal at the climactic events of the film. Once all are the cards were revealed, so to speak, the beginning of the film begins to make sense. From the curtain rising, the silent film-like scene to begin and the narration to open things up, all those give a hint to what the answer to the question the film’s narrative really asks: “Is what we’re seeing truly real or is it all just fantasy?”
Sucker Punch becomes a sort of a trip down the rabbit hole a la Alice In Wonderland once the film establishes Baby Doll’s predicament upon arriving at the Lennox House (she’s to be lobotomized in 5 days). The film moves from the gray and depressing confines of the Lennox House to the fantasy world centered on a burlesque establishment where Baby Doll is an orphan sold by a decadent priest (the form her stepfather takes in this fantasy) to Blue, the proprietor of this house of ill repute where orphaned young women become burlesque dancers and worst to the clientele. It is in this place we meet the rest of the gang Baby Doll will befriend to help her try to escape the place and thus avoif the “High Roller” who will come to collect her in 5 days.
The film shares something similar with Christopher Nolan’s Inception in that both films deal with different levels of reality or fantasy (depends on how one sees the different worlds shown in both films). Where Nolan’s ideas seem more rooted in what he would consider as more grounded to reality as much as possible Snyder goes the other way and takes the leashes off of Baby Doll’s imagination. This third level Baby Doll goes to as she begins her dance to distract the men of the burlesque house is her mind unfettered and where she’s not helpless but has power not just to protect herself but do so better than the men who inhabit this fantasy world of steampunk zombie soldiers, orcs, dragons, alien robot machines and many other scifi and fantasy tropes which define geek culture through the decades.
If there’s one reason to watch this film it would be just to bear witness to Snyder letting his imagination as a visual filmmaker take over. Some people may not like this and want a strong, structured narrative to balance out the visuals. I, too, would’ve liked to have seen something stronger in terms of story and plot, but there are just instances when the visuals are so striking and wildly imaginative that one just marvels at the scenes unfolding on the screen. If any, Snyder as a visual artist helps prop up the weakness in the story. Snyder would’ve served this film better if he went even further and turned Sucker Punch into an avant-garde silent film of the digital age. That beginning in the film just unfolded so strongly despite no dialogue that the rest of the film could’ve been done in the same manner and be the better for it.
Which brings me to what was the film’s near fatal flaw. A flaw that many of the film’s detractors have taken as the rallying cry to denounce the film as horrible and Snyder as a hack. The interesting thing is that these same people were also the ones who had been praising of Snyder prior to this film. Even those who begrudgingly gave Snyder his props for having some semblance of talent because of the very handling of the visuals that he has now have become much more vocal about how they always knew Snyder was never that good.
I would say that Snyder is not the second coming of Ridley Scott as some of his supporters have anointed him or is he a hack filmmaker who is all flash and no substance. I think he’s somewhere in the middle and still finding his true voice as a filmmaker. I’ve always seen Snyder as being weak when it comes to handling the slower scenes of dialogue and most visual filmmakers tend to be the same when starting out. The dialogue seem to get in the way of what they really want to do and tell the story through striking visual sequences. They’re like painters who don’t need words to convey the emotions they wish to convey. Sucker Punch I believe suffered from Snyder trying to combine his strength on the visual side of the equation with his handling of story through the dialogue which he still hasn’t mastered. If someone else had written, or at the very least, fixed and strengthened the script, I do believe that the film wouldn’t be getting so ripped and trounced by those who had been so excited to seeing one of Snyder’s personal projects.
The performances by the cast ranged from good to just being there. There really wasn’t anyone in particular who performed badly. Everyone from Emily Browning to Oscar Isaac all the way to Abbie Cornish did well enough with the material they were given. Oscar Isaac as both Blue in the insane asylum and as the pimp in the burlesque house did particularly well playing up the fun role of the villain in Baby Doll’s different levels of reality/fantasy. Of the ladies in the film I must point out the performance of Jena Malone and Abbie Cornish as sisters in the second level. While we only get a glimpse of Cornish’s Sweet Pea character in the Lennox House, once in the burlesque setting she becomes the anchor by which the rest of the women in the cast held onto. Jena Malone as the younger sister Rocket who still dreamed hopes of escape was a nice complement to Sweet Pea.
So, we have a film in Sucker Punch which seem to have strength on one side of the filmmaking equation and a major weakness on another. This is the kind of film that I would, in the past, have dismissed as another attempt by Hollywood to pander to the geek crowd with its mash-up of different scifi and fantasy imagery. But this time around I actually enjoyed the film both in a visual sense and how Snyder was able to play with the audience’s personal observations about the themes his film is trying to explore. It’s these very themes which have split audiences into two camps. While the gender politics and stereotypes people have brought up in discussing this film have made for some lively debate I refrain from adding my views on it in this review. I think I’m not well-qualified to debate such discussions.
For me, Sucker Punch succeeds more than it fails because Snyder didn’t play it safe with how he wanted to make his film. He was able to tell the film’s story through the different visual styles for each world the cast played in and did it quite well. While most of the time I wouldn’t give a film a pass for a weak narrative and average dialogue with this film I felt like the experience one gets from experiencing the visual canvas Snyder continued to paint with from beginning to end was enough to balance out the negative. It’s really a film that one must experience for themselves and make their decision on that experience instead of listening to other’s opinions (both good and bad) about the film. One may end up hating the film like some, but then again they may end up like me and forgive Snyder for trying to reach for the sun and failing to do so, but at least tried to with panache instead of playing it safe.