His last film, Watchmen, had me cringing at some of its gory indulgences, so when the posters and trailers of Zack Snyder’s Sucker Punch were released, I feared it would descend into the same. However, Watchmen was in sections very faithful to the original, near-impossible to adapt comic, which showed great talent. I gave Sucker Punch a try precisely for what was on display in the previews: women in strange combat costumes, guns & swords, and fantasy mayhem. I hoped for an entertaining action-fest, but to my surprise it was all that and a complex fantasy film with human core.
A well-executed wordless montage is a pure cinematic experience, and the gritty CG-assisted sequence at the start of Sucker Punch is gripping from the get go. Baby Doll is an orphaned girl blamed for the death of her sister and sent to a mental asylum by her evil step-father. To get his hands on her inheritance, he also bribes the head orderly to forge papers and have her lobotomised in a few days when the specialist arrives. Sucker Punch is set in those few days of hell awaiting the end, a hell transformed by the imaginative mind of a girl facing the imminent destruction of her self.
The mental institution is a grim place that pushes the noir-inspired aesthetic of the film. To escape this harsh reality, Baby Doll constructs a complex alternative where she is brought into a bordello by a priest, to await the pleasures of the High Roller, who arrives in a few days. She is to be trained to dance the exotic dances that are the staple of the establishment, and she begins to work with the other girls around her to escape their collective prison. When Baby Doll dances, her audience is left mesmerised, while she imagines a deeper video-game inspired reality where she is a warrior fighting supernatural odds; That’s where the guns, explosions and combat gear come in.
This bizarre premise makes for a deeply thoughtful film that is steeped in metaphor, while also being a blazing entertainer. Much of this film is created with the help of computer graphics, but Sucker Punch embraces its artificiality rather than aiming for a facsimile of reality. Since CG rarely convinces completely, this decision makes Sucker Punch a heightened and beautiful visual experience. Whether in dramatic set locations or its fantastic elements, from beginning to end, Sucker Punch is a consummately cinematic experience. This is a refreshing change from the increasingly small-screen friendly filmic language of recent times.
While it’s easy to give all credit to the technical excellence of Sucker Punch, it works in no small part due to the convincing and restrained work by its cast and crew. The girls playing Baby Doll (Emily Browning), Sweet Pea (Abbie Cornish), Rocket (Jena Malone), Blondie (Vanessa Hudgens) and Amber (Jamie Chung), do so with a surprising amount of nuance. Carla Gugino is her usual assured self as Dr. Vera Gorski, the caretaker of the girls, and Oscar Isaac does a beautifully menacing turn as a very human but very scary villain, playing the corrupt orderly and the sleazy brothel owner. Even Jon Hamm has an earnest, if short, cameo appearance which adds texture to the proceedings.
The soundtrack of Sucker Punch also caught my attention. The selection of modern, rhythm-heavy music juxtaposed with the vaguely vintage aesthetic of the movie, and the fantasy action sequences, makes for a rousing combination. One song that that stood out for me was the Alice themed song White Rabbit, covered by Emiliana Torrini. A cover of White Rabbit by Grace Potter and the Nocturnals was also used in the recent Alice in Wonderland film. The two films do share many common virtues and a similar take on myth and parable which I found refreshing. While the song was appropriately themed aural atmosphere in Alice in Wonderland, in Sucker Punch it is also a clever implication.
Zack Snyder has done well here. He delivers a very mature piece of film making that goes beyond his technical flair in Watchmen, and showcases a visual language and a storytelling subtlety of his own. This is in part due to the PG rating of this film, I imagine. Like all good designers, Zack Snyder is made better for the need to pull back and work within the constraints. Since the release of the film, it has been announced that a more liberal director’s cut that re-integrates much of the footage cut from this version will be out on DVD/Blue Ray in the future. It will be interesting to see if the additions make or mar this story, although I’m hoping it has a strong enough core to be improved by the extra details.
I enjoyed Sucker Punch because it is smart, gripping, sticks to its internal logic, and is shamelessly entertaining. Ultimately, it is about the individual driven by their need for freedom from an establishment, that most honest of human traits. To gain that freedom, they act, and fight, and keep their heads while doing whatever is necessary, rather than degenerating into pathos or morality. A choice that sits well with me in life and entertainment. I also know that Sucker Punch is going to hold a fond place in my heart, because like most of my favourite films from the 60s, it is in equal parts entertaining, profound and sensual. That sensual part is rare to see today. Being set in a bordello with a PG rating, the film has a healthy dose of repressed sexuality, but the sensuality I speak of goes beyond that. Like Zardoz, Barbarella, Danger Diabolik, Blow Up, and other films I love, Sucker Punch celebrates the sensuality of the human condition. It embraces it, makes it a matter of fact, and hence all the characters are sensual beings, an admission few are willing to make today in any mature way. In addition to being a solid piece of film making, Sucker Punch works because it makes films sexy again.