I already know I'm going to be in the minority on this one. Frankly, I don't care. I also know that this isn't going to be an even-split "love it or hate it" kind of movie. I'm fully aware that this film's advocates will be on the smaller side of that equation. So you can tune out now, if you wish. You probably already know where I'm going to come out on Zack Snyder's SUCKER PUNCH. I fully expect hoots of dirision, and I've already steeled myself for the cacophony.
"Kitchen sink" films rarely work. I define "kitchen sink" films as films that, for better or worse, are a filmmaker's intent to make the definitive work of their career (which almost never works intentionally - the audience decides a filmmaker's definitive work, not the filmmaker) or a film that the filmmaker makes to excise their influences and visions, throwing every influence and passion onto the screen, a kind of palate cleanser. Or both. GANGS OF NEW YORK is a "kitchen sink" movie, and I'd rank that film as an interesting failure. The KILL BILL movies are "kitchen sink" movies, for example, that work.
SUCKER PUNCH is, without a doubt, a "kitchen sink" movie. Its influences are as wide as the ocean - anime, Kurosawa, war films, comic books, science fiction, METROPOLIS, Terry Gilliam's BRAZIL, pick your genre - and the film's detractors will claim it's about as deep as a puddle. Logically, the film makes little narrative sense. It may be considered a cop-out to say that it's not supposed to. But this is not a film to be analyzed, picked over and examined. This is a film to be experienced, to be taken in as a whole, and it's a film where the journey is the point, and not the destination.
SUCKER PUNCH is structured like a fairy tale, with Babydoll (Emily Browning) and her younger sister mourning the death of their wealthy mother. Their evil stepfather (Gerard Plunkett) is there to collect the inheritance, but when their mother's will has all the money going to her daughters, he goes into a rage and attempts to rape Babydoll's sister. Babydoll grabs a gun and shoots, but misses the stepfather and kills her sister accidentally. This is all the stepfather needs to get Babydoll committed to Lennox House, a home for the insane. The stepfather pays an orderly, Blue (Oscar Isaacs), to falsify Dr. Vera Gorski's (Carla Gugino) paperwork to give permission for Babydoll to be lobotomized in five days by the visiting surgeon (Jon Hamm). All of this is told in a very free-flowing visual style that any person who has ever seen a Zack Snyder film will recognize. It's all there - green screen, speed ramping, CGI - but Snyder and the concept artists and crew are having such a fun time telling their story visually you go along with the ride. The whole opening sequence is practically silent before the title credits show up. Time in SUCKER PUNCH is as fluid as your drink spilling into your lap.
Once Jon Hamm, with his lobotomy nail ready, shows up, our perspective shifts into a fantasy in Babydoll's mind, as she sees the asylum as something called "the Theater," where the girls are playthings for the male clients who come to be served there; Blue as tyrannical boss and Gorski as caretaker of the trapped girls. We meet them all, inside Babydoll's fantasy - friendly Rocket (Jena Malone); wary, cynical Sweet Pea (Abbie Cornish); very unblonde Blondie (Vanessa Hudgens); and handy with a mech Amber (Jamie Chung). The girls are there to entertain the men, and the first time Gorski instructs Babydoll to dance, she is transported to a dream within the fantasy as she fends off three giant mecha-samurai to gain the weapons and the knowledge of the Wise Man (Scott Glenn). In this fantasy, Babydoll figures out how to escape the facility. But she cannot do it alone, so she enlists the help of the other girls to gain the items she needs - a map, fire, a key, a knife, and a fifth, secret item. As fantasy layers upon fantasy, the film becomes an opportunity for Snyder to wear his influences on his sleeve - from a World War I trench warfare sequence where anime mech meets clockwork zombies to a medieval siege complete with orcs and a really big dragon - think Vermithrax, not REIGN OF FIRE - as our heroines do battle using a World War II Flying Fortress. I imagine everything Zack Snyder ever said "Cool!" at in passing is in this film in some way or another. Babydoll and the girls must break out of their prison before the High Roller (Jon Hamm) appears and takes Babydoll away forever without hope of escape. Each dance that Babydoll performs for the various male characters transports the audience to a new realm, and brings the girls closer to their freedom.
Flat out, if you can't suspend your disbelief in this movie, you're going to be in for an unpleasant time. The movie requires a lot of heavy lifting, and narrative logic goes out the window fairly early. Babydoll's dreams, especially - although it's not clear what time the film takes place (it seems to be in the 1960s), Babydoll's visions involve anime mechs, science fiction robots, high speed trains, and imagery that someone like Babydoll simply doesn't have access to. Although the film doesn't make logical sense, it does if you approach the film as a kind of visual "musical." In musicals we're expected to understand that people can break out into song as a part of the world, and in SUCKER PUNCH fantasy action sequences take the place of those songs. It's visual music, as it were. Snyder's imagery is playful; the camera swoops, shakes, soars, and catapults the audience through each amazing scene. If you try to pick at what you're seeing, though, the house of cards falls down. This isn't a movie for people who need realism in their films - you're missing the forest for the trees if you question why Babydoll has the fantasies that she does. Instead, you're basically watching Snyder riff on his guitar for two hours. That's okay if you like that sort of thing, because Snyder's one of the best in the business. But if you can't stomach the way Snyder spirals, jazzlike, through the film's setpieces, you're going to be fairly miserable.
I'd say that SUCKER PUNCH may be the first film to use videogame aesthetics and plotting successfully. Each sequence is like a level (some even have end bosses) as the girls move further along to their goal. Like a videogame, Babydoll puts herself inside her fantasy as the heroine. As each item is procured the stakes of the film go even higher. And this film has stakes - people die, and the threat is very real, even inside the fantasy. Like INCEPTION, each layer of fantasy touches on the one before, and also touches "reality." If you think this is all gloss and sparkle, it's not. SUCKER PUNCH has quite a bit of subtext to it - the gender roles of the girls, male dominance and subjugation, the subversion of the fairy tale - but it's only there if you want it. More intellectual viewers are free to engage with those subtexts while you can groove on the imagery if you want.
For many people, SUCKER PUNCH will simply be too much. For others, SUCKER PUNCH will just be silly, an indulgent male fantasy of hot chicks fighting dragons and such. I could nitpick SUCKER PUNCH to death, but that would be missing the point. I think Zack Snyder is using the geek imagery in the film to subvert and play with the very conventions of cinema. What is reality? Every film we watch is reality for the characters in them, so questioning what we're watching seems pointless - we're inside the movie with the characters. And at the same time, we're outside of what we are watching because the imagery Snyder uses touches on so many different genres and films it can't be helped when we're pulled outside of the movie to think about what we're seeing. It's a neat trick Snyder pulls off here, and I haven't seen very many filmmakers do that successfully. Christopher Nolan's done it; Quentin Tarantino's done it. Not many others. It's all very meta and for the more disciplined, structured mind it may be confusing. But if you trust where Zack Snyder is taking you, and set aside your misgivings, SUCKER PUNCH may take you places that you didn't expect for a film of this kind.
I'm not going to be one of those people who claims that people who don't like SUCKER PUNCH "don't get it." I'm also not going to claim that it's their fault if SUCKER PUNCH is too much for them. In a way, SUCKER PUNCH is Zack Snyder's most personal film, and what it tells me about him is this - he's not interested in conventional storytelling techniques. He uses larger themes and images - larger than life, and overwhelming at times - and SUCKER PUNCH could be viewed as Snyder's personal thesis on the art of film in general, and the power of stories and myths to transport us from reality. It could be Snyder's statement on gender and sexuality; a girl empowering film about the power of feminism and friendship to overcome adversity and subjugation. It could simply be seen as a vessel for cool images but hollow and empty. This will likely be viewed as a cop out when I say this, but much of what works for SUCKER PUNCH is what you bring into it. It's a bit like a Rorschach test that way (pun intended). I do think that SUCKER PUNCH is going to gain a small, fierce following, much like the following for SCOTT PILGRIM or even FIREFLY. We're probably going to see a ton of Babydolls or Sweet Peas this year at ComicCon. I don't know how this film is going to fall in my mind as time passes. Like I said, I know I'm going to be the minority on this one. Others will undoubtedly see SUCKER PUNCH as a self-indulgent mess. They may even be right, from their own perspective. All I can say is that I haven't stopped thinking about it, and the more I turn SUCKER PUNCH around in my head, the more I think that Zack Snyder's film is one of those rare "kitchen sink" films that works, on multiple levels - as sheer entertainment, as a deeper comment on film, and as Snyder's grand statement on the power of myth and storytelling. In short, I think it's one hell of a movie.