Zack Synder's latest tribute to slow motion, Sucker Punch, tries so hard to be cool the director might as well have put sunglasses over the camera lens. Maybe he did, as that would explain why everything looked so dim. At times, I wondered if the movie was actually a minor step forward for 3D, one that did not require the use of special glasses. Of course, showing the film in 3D is the only way Sucker Punch could be any more offensive aesthetically: freed from the nominal requirement of honoring someone else's vision, Snyder can now assert his purported prowess to fully serve his own ends. But when you get closer, you find that his sandbox is filled with dried cat turds.
To be fair to the film, nothing that happens in it can or should be taken seriously. Its first moments open theatrical, revealing production and distribution company logos on curtains that rise to reveal a flat, clearly artificial set that only becomes a fully immersed location once the camera spins around the two-dimensional setup as if leaving drywall and furniture behind it to fill the space. This overt suggestion of the film's harmlessness graciously allows one to set aside issues of plausibility and, far more importantly, those of morality.
Following a brief, meaningless narration, the film starts with a wordless sequence set to an obnoxious cover of "Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This)." The near-10-minute setpiece depicts a young woman (Emily Browning) breaking down after the death of her mother. When her abusive father discovers the will left all his wife's money to the children, he plots to kill them both. He succeeds in killing his youngest, but the protagonist fends him off, until he frames her and has her committed to an institution, that is.
This opening allows Snyder to engage in his usual tropes: the entire sequence is slow-motion, filmed in muted, sharp grays and drowned out by exceedingly poor soundtrack selection. Whatever emotional connection a wordless depiction of grief and intolerable cruelty might have arisen from the judicious eye of a competent director gets swapped for emotional shorthand and Snyder's usual reveling in the misery and rage of others. There is no reason to care for Baby Doll, as she will come to be called in the institution, other than out of basic human decency, but for all the crap Snyder has crammed into his four live-action feature films, decency has never found its way into the mix.
Perhaps Snyder thought he was fooling anyone in his setup to the eventual descent into fancy and action one saw in the trailer, and I would have to say he was right, taking into account the dumbfounded reactions of those who could not follow the obvious giveaways 10 minutes into the film pointing to why the film suddenly lurches into a nonstop fantasy sequence. After a brief stay in the rusted metal and grimy concrete of the mental institution, the setting suddenly gives way to an old-school cabaret/strip club where all the orderlies and doctors from the preceding scenes appear as pimps and dance instructors. One woman in the audience lost volume control in her bewilderment and nearly screamed "What's happening?!" to her companions.
From there, the film moves into a series of fantastical, video-game like scenarios involving Baby Doll and the other girls of the institution/brothel: Sweet Pea (Abbie Cornish), her sister Rocket (Jena Malone), Amber (Jamie Chung) and Blondie (Vanessa Hudgens, looking suspiciously like Snooki). Synder's films have always incorporated a video-game cutscene aesthetic, but here he goes hog wild. Made to find a series of items straight out of an adventure quest by a mysterious sage (Scott Glenn in full on David Carradine from Kung Fu and Kill Bill mode), Baby Doll et al. traverse various setpieces that might have made for a diverse blend of action, had everything not felt so rote.
Seriously, how can a sequence built around skydiving from a WWII airplane into a Helm's Deep-esque stronghold being overrun by orcs in order to slay a dragon to steal its fire be so damn dull? In transposing their 7th-grade notebook sketches into a script, Snyder and co-writer Steve Shibuya never ground the action in anything. Glenn's character pops up at times to deliver wretched inspirational adages, but he might have turned to face the camera to remind Snyder of the importance of heart: Sucker Punch has none, and thus the frenzy of its quotation exists solely to advance the director's masturbatory tendencies. The film is not even rhythmic enough to suck the audience into the flow, and as we all know, it don't mean a thing, if it ain't got that swing. Right, Scott?
Having disagreed with Rango's detractors over its use of cinematic references as supposedly empty and self-serving, I can now sit back and relax as Sucker Punch attracts all that ire. Snyder's film encompasses references from various fields: fantasy literature, steampunk, anime, video games and, surprisingly, musicals (the influence of Moulin Rouge! can be seen all over the place). But nothing is ever made unique, despite the lack of clear, obvious reference in scenes. He does not quote the lines of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest or restage Lord of the Rings, but each reference only serves to show how much Snyder loves what he incorporates. Not even the mashup of styles in each setpiece -- such as a Great Train Robbery involving a bomb defusion and a robot army -- creates a feeling of originality in juxtaposition.
This is a movie that goes off half-cocked, both in the rush of its action sequences and the orgasmic fetishism freely on display. None of these scenes has any kind of internal logic or cleverness: it assumes that the sight of Nazi steampunk zombies is so cool that the jumbled assembly of the sequence does not matter*. Like any self-absorbed man, Snyder only holds onto these images long enough to blow his wad, at which point he stops caring. Each sequence begins and ends with its establishing shot, a cornucopia of stitched-together genre imagery whose prettiness is instantly subsumed in the garish gloss of the director's staging. And if I saw the women drop from the sky, land thunderously and look up triumphantly and seductively into the camera one more time I swear I'd kill someone. Thankfully, Sucker Punch avoids the offensiveness of Snyder's Watchmen and 300, which makes the aesthetic offensiveness of its conception all the more deeply felt.
Tarantino's name has floated around nearly every review of Sucker Punch, both for the amount of cinematic references and its use of bad-ass women characters. But Tarantino is steeped in trash, as familiar with the specifics of an Australian grindhouse picture as he is with the ideas behind Taxi Driver. Snyder is a product not of the VCR generation but of the YouTube one, aware only of surface-level visuals and lines. Tarantino memorized the names of everyone involved in his favorite movies; Snyder can just check IMDb. Even when he almost stumbles into something so audacious it could work, such as the WWI zombie sequence, he ruins it by unimaginatively filming it in the rapid-cutting shaky cam of modern war cinema -- though I suppose I should be grateful he laid off the damn slo-mo for 10 minutes.
For all the flat banality of the action, the worst aspect of the film is its fleeting sense of self-importance. Dialogue comes in three flavors: 1) bad-ass declarations, 2) inspiration faux-philosophy and 3) laughable moments of ostensibly emotional bonding. As much as Snyder clearly wants to just play with his toys, he would also like to continue trading on the undeserved reputation he got among some for making smart genre cinema when he broadly dumbed down Alan Moore's characterizations and philosophy with Watchmen. As if it did not already sag enough when fully embracing its insanity, Sucker Punch dips into new lows when it makes fitful stabs at meaning. It drains the life out of the cast, some of whom might have excelled in better circumstances.
When I heard the wonderful, electric Jena Malone would be in this film and receive more lines than she ever has in a mainstream movie, I could hardly contain my delight. But that gift is a curse: given more lines than anyone else, she must therefore bear the burden of that atrocious dialogue, and not even her indefatigable spunk can overcome the swill of Snyder's pastiche vomit. Malone and Cornish do their best to enliven the film, but saddled with three unresponsive co-stars and the sheer mega-tonnage of the film's smeared gloss, they too often feel as if their respective defiance and resignation is in response to the movie itself and not anything in its diegesis.
Perhaps Sucker Punch signals a roundabout step forward for women in film, in that it saddles a female cast with all the tired dialogue and phallic violence enjoyed by men since time eternal. But that smacks of the argument that Sarah Palin's political success is good for women despite her platform of policies almost entirely antithetical to gender advancement. Still, to compare the two would suggest that Sucker Punch is anything other than a transparently forgettable and a benign waste of time. I cannot bring myself, especially as a man, to hem and haw over whether Snyder's film is empowering or yet another example of his ability to capture the pain and despair of women without the depth that makes such depictions resonant. I can say, however, that if women got more opportunities to carry a big-budget CGI fest, even a shitty one, we might not have to spend so much time arguing over whether this one does them a disservice.