Pick of the week: Moronic trash? Subversive masterpiece? Zack Snyder's lingerie action flick is all that and more
Zack Snyder’s “Sucker Punch” is like the Nietzschean Superman of CGI action movies. It’s so far beyond good and evil as to make its morality irrelevant, and to undermine any verdicts you might render about its meaning or quality. A ridiculously ambitious and perhaps fatally flawed mashup of ideas, themes and influences, it’s more like a Quentin Tarantino movie — or more like the platonic ideal of a Tarantino movie — than any movie Tarantino has ever personally made. I can’t be sure whether it’s brilliant or idiotic, although I’m pretty confident it’s both, and not always in different places or at different moments.
This movie is going to be vehemently attacked as brain-damaged garbage that exemplifies everything that’s wrong with today’s filmmaking and today’s audiences. It’s also going to be vigorously defended as a subversive action-movie masterpiece that offers a big middle finger to Hollywood convention, audience expectations, and anybody and everybody who would rather watch “The King’s Speech.” People on both sides will be partly right and partly wrong. Here’s where I come down: “Sucker Punch” doesn’t all work by a long shot, but it confirms my sense that Snyder belongs near the top of a very short list of directors who are trying to reinvent a personal, auteurist vision of cinema at the most commercial, mass-market, attention-disordered end of the spectrum.
First and most obviously, “Sucker Punch” is on one level exactly what it looks like: an unzipped geek-boy fantasy about a posse of scantily clad hookers engaged in video-game style throwdowns with a villainous array of robots, monsters and dragons. You could say that Snyder tries to walk a fine line between softcore exploitation and girl-power feminism, but it’s more like he takes a big fat grade-school eraser and smudges that line into meaninglessness. Anyway, there can be no doubt that he really, really digs directing fight sequences, and as in “Watchmen” and “300,” he commands a team that delivers the best effects in the business.
At their worst, these interludes offer adrenalized action cinema that’s well above average, and at their best — like an imaginary version of World War I trench warfare, featuring zombie German soldiers reanimated with clockwork and steam power, enormous dirigible warships and a Pokémon-style Japanese battlebot — they verge on demented visionary genius. But if the ass-kicking lingerie chicks are the overly sweet chocolate in the center, the pastry around them is something else again: a self-referential movie-movie whose axis of reality keeps shifting, after the manner of “Inception” and “Shutter Island” and “The Matrix” (and almost every David Lynch movie, and a whole bunch of influences more obscure than that). And buried inside that pastry, deep within the candy-chewy, garters-and-machine-guns center, is a nugget of dark and deadly poison.
You may have noticed that I haven’t mentioned the movie’s actors or characters yet, which is because Snyder’s screenplay (co-written with Steve Shibuya) treats them as archetypal and almost interchangeable game-board pieces. (Unlike almost every movie made in Hollywood these days, “Sucker Punch” is not based on some preexisting “media property.” Of course, another way of putting it might be that it’s based on all of them.) His heroine is a young woman known only as Baby Doll (played by Emily Browning), who looks like a pigtailed stereotype out of jailbait pornography and barely speaks in the movie’s first half hour. We meet her in a super-stylized music-video flashback, set to a cover version of the Eurythmics’ “Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This),” that explains her predicament: Her evil stepfather has framed her for the murder of her little sister, and she’s been confined to a decaying mental hospital that looks like a mixture of Sam Fuller’s “Shock Corridor,” some smutty women’s-prison movie and an Edward Gorey cartoon. Everything about the place is weird and improbable, from the severe but stylish head shrink (Carla Gugino) to the suspiciously hot fellow inmates, whom we’ll get to know later under their porny non-names: Sweet Pea (Abbie Cornish) and her sister Rocket (Jena Malone), along with the raven-tressed Blondie (Vanessa Hudgens) and Amber (Jamie Chung).
Except then the movie’s universe, or Baby Doll’s damaged psychology, skips a gear or two, and suddenly she and her peers are captives of another kind, high-priced dancers and courtesans in a decadent Gilded Age nightclub presided over by a sleazeball impresario named Blue (Oscar Isaac, a corrupt hospital orderly in reality No. 1). Gugino’s half-sympathetic doctor becomes the slinky, middle-aged Eastern European den mother, torn between sisterly loyalty and slavish obedience to Blue. Baby Doll is seen as a highly valuable new commodity, and in a few days she will be delivered to a mysterious customer known as the High Roller. (Without giving anything away about him: Cough-cough-Don Draper-cough.) Snyder is clearly a compulsive cinephile, and if you share that tendency you may spot similarities to all kinds of movies about showbiz and/or prostitution, from “Lola Montès” to “Moulin Rouge!” Unless I’m way off base, he’s also a fan of French director Lucile Hadzihalilovic’s “Innocence,” a creepy girls’-school allegory with some strikingly similar ingredients that was among the ignored delights of the last decade.
At any rate, in whorehouse reality Baby Doll discovers that her dancing has the power to hypnotize men, quite literally, and to transport her — and Sweet Pea, Rocket, Blondie and Amber, as necessary — into a video-game jukebox universe presided over by Scott Glenn, who does such a convincing impersonation of “Kung Fu”-meets-”Kill Bill” David Carradine that at first I wondered what digital tricks had been used to resuscitate him. It’s Glenn who delivers mock-military pep talks to the miniskirted fab five before every one of their fantasy missions: Disarm a bomb on a moving train, murder the baby dragon (aww!) and flee its mother, kill the robots and steal the secret German map, etc., accompanied by such bromides as “Never write a check with your mouth you can’t cash with your ass.”
I suppose it’s clear enough that the loony-bin level of “Sucker Punch” is meant to be reality, and every subsequent shift in context — up to and including the faux-medieval dragon-slaying and steampunk World War I cyborgs — is a metaphorical attempt to escape from that reality. That is, it’s accurate but inadequate; that’s both taking the movie too literally and missing its point. There’s no big puzzle to work out here, à la Christopher Nolan, and the more you pick at Snyder’s nested narratives, the more miscellaneous and nonsensical they become. (Mind you, many of Nolan’s fans also approach his movies in a wrongheaded spirit of biblical exegesis. But let’s punt the whole question of the uses of narrative instability in “Inception” and “Sucker Punch” to next year’s crop of grad students.)
It might be better to say that all levels of the story in “Sucker Punch” are self-evidently ludicrous, and that the point of the movie is the vertiginous thrill ride that takes us through them, pumped along by a dance-floor soundtrack produced by Marius De Vries and Tyler Bates (Björk, Queen and Mozart are all involved, along with covers of “White Rabbit,” “Tomorrow Never Knows” and “Love Is the Drug”). If you want to understand Snyder’s central narrative gambit, it’s right there in the title. He gives us what we want (or what we think we want, or what he thinks we think we want): Absurdly fetishized women in teeny little skirts, gloriously repetitious fight sequences loaded with plot coupons, pseudo-feminist fantasies of escape and revenge. Then he yanks it all back and stabs us through the eyeball.
More Related Stories
- Cannes: Directing 101 with James Franco
- Welcome to the jungle: The definitive oral history of '80s metal
- Burt Bacharach opens up on daughter's suicide
- Steven Spielberg to produce "Halo" television series
- Amazon set to launch fine-art gallery
- Twitter torches Dan Brown's "Inferno"
- Brad Pitt keeps breaking his silence on how boring marriage to Jennifer Aniston was
- Lars von Trier's "Nymphomaniac" to use porn star body doubles
- New Beyoncé single leaked
- The sweet, sure to be short-lived "The Goodwin Games"
- Damon Lindelof admits barely-clothed scene in "Star Trek" was "gratuitous"
- Justin Timberlake: I'm a mediocre folk singer!
- Ray Manzarek, founding member of The Doors, dies at 74
- Beware of book blurbs
- Did a Salon excerpt ruin Penn Jillette's chance to win "Celebrity Apprentice"?
- Zach Galifianakis to take formerly homeless woman to "Hangover 3" premiere
- Seth MacFarlane will not host Oscars again
- "SNL's" uncomfortable Garner/Affleck moment
- "Celebrity Apprentice" finale ratings hit a new low
- Worst National Anthem fails
- The truth in Kanye's anti-prison rap
Featured Slide Shows
The week in 10 picsclose X
- 1 of 11
Lisa Montgomery embraces her nephew Thursday after a tornado tore apart her home in Cleburne, Texas. The twister killed six people and destroyed entire swaths of the North Texas town.
Credit: AP/LM Otero
Jack McMahon, the defense attorney for abortion doctor Kermit Gosnell, speaks outside the Criminal Justice Center in Philadelphia Tuesday. His client was convicted of killing three babies in his clinic, and will serve multiple life sentences.
Credit: AP/Matt Rourke
A photo taken Monday captures Vice President Joe Biden's response to a Milwaukee second-grader's innovative proposal to end America's epidemic of gun violence. This guy!
Credit: AP/Jenny Aicher
Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., flanked by a grouper-eyed Michele Bachmann, addresses the IRS' admission that it targeted Tea Party groups in advance of the 2012 election. In an op-ed for CNN Thursday, the Kentucky senator slammed the president for his faux outrage.
Credit: AP/Molly Riley
Ousted IRS chief Steven Miller is sworn in on Capitol Hill Friday. Miller testified before the House Ways and Means Committee on the extra scrutiny the agency gave conservative groups applying for tax-exempt status.
Credit: AP/J. Scott Applewhite
Attorney General Eric Holder pauses as he testifies on Capitol Hill before the House Judiciary Committee Wednesday. Holder is under fire, among other things, for the Justice Department's gathering of phone records at the Associated Press.
Credit: AP/Carolyn Kaster
O.J. Simpson sits during an evidentiary hearing at Clark County District Court in Las Vegas, Nev., Thursday. Simpson, who is currently serving a nine-to-33-year sentence in state prison for armed robbery and kidnapping, is using a writ of habeas corpus to seek a new trial.
Credit: AP/Las Vegas Review-Journal/Jeff Scheid
Major Tom to ground control: On Sunday astronaut Chris Hadfield recorded the first music video from space, a cover of David Bowie's "Space Oddity."
Credit: AP/NASA/Chris Hadfield
When it rains it pours. President Barack Obama speaks during a news conference Thursday with Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, inexplicably inspiring an #umbrellagate Twitter meme.
Credit: AP/Jacquelyn Martin
A smoke plume rises high above a road block at the intersection of County A and Ross Road east of Solon Springs, Wis., Tuesday. No injuries were reported, but the the wildfire caused evacuations across northwestern Wisconsin.
Credit: AP/The Duluth News-Tribune/Clint Austin
Recent Slide Shows
- 1 of 11