DISCLAIMER: This post summarizes my initial gushing about the theatrical (PG-13) release of Sucker Punch. I'm leaving it here because I like it, but I subsequently discovered that the "Extended" R-rated cut found on the Blu-Ray is infinitely superior (because the MPAA hadn't yet ordered it sliced to ribbons). It actually makes sense, is less disturbing, and far more fun. For details see my later post.
I really wanted to see Sucker Punch when it came out until I heard a lot of really terrible stuff about it, and I decided to pass. That was really my loss because it turned out to be a damn fine movie. In fact, after liking both this film and the oft-maligned Watchmen, I'm becoming quite the Zack Snyder fan. So why have so many people (especially professional critics) had such strong, violent revulsion to the thing?
Any time that a movie tries to do something that defies expectations, people are more likely to hate it. Most people want to know what kind of movie they're getting in to, and most people who went to see Sucker Punch were led to expect a popcorn action fantasy about girls in schoolgirl outfits chopping up robots with samurai swords. Sucker Punch is certainly that, but only for about 35% of it's runtime. The rest of it is an extremely challenging and convoluted art film.
Now the mere fact that someone would attempt to combine these disparate styles in one movie is shocking enough before we even begin to discuss the sexual issues at the heart of the movie. The moral outrage of many viewers and the metaphorical public spanking that Snyder has received over Sucker Punch prove that he has struck a nerve that probably needs a little more poking.
Sucker Punch is the story of Babydoll, a young girl who in a strikingly disturbing prologue is taken in by her sleazy-as-hell uncle after her mother's death. Sexual abuse is unseen but pretty damn obvious, and beyond this the uncle is scheming to rob the young girl of her inheritance. On one dark night Babydoll pulls a gun on her uncle to save her sister from him, and in the chaos the sister ends up dead.
This provides the uncle with a fine excuse to commit his niece to a mental institution, which is corrupt to the point of implausibility... except of course that this is a nightmare story and the Uncle is all-powerful. The doctors are bribed to swiftly have Babydoll labotomized, but just before the brain-damage is about to occur the movie punches us in our metaphorical guts.
Suddenly we're ripped from continuity and find ourselves in an early 20th century brothel where they're welcoming Babydoll as their newest addition. What's going on? It would appear that this brothel scenario is Babydoll's metaphorical retelling of the few days between her arrival and labotomy. Some have asked why this jump into metaphor was necessary, and I think it is for two good reasons.
First, it makes a commentary on the way that Babydoll views her situation. From her name on down she is presented to us uncomfortably as a fetish object. She's young looking, shy, beautiful, sad, terrified, and nearly silent, which plays into some of the most unsavory male sexual fantasies. In the film's heightened reality, she seems to exist solely as a helpless tool to be taken advantage of by scummy men. It's not much of a stretch for her to romanticize the situation and visualize herself in a brothel, where she exists solely to titillate and please clients (but with an added sheen of class).
Some have argued that Sucker Punch presents an unrealistic world where all men are scum and all women are victims, and it does because... it's a nightmare story. It also may seem like a shock to some members of the audience, but some women really do live lives this painful. Don't their stories deserve to be told? Why must Sucker Punch describe the situations of all women everywhere just because it's about a woman? All guys aren't James Bond after all.
In any case, the girls are each trained to develop a dance that will sell them to the horny men who frequent the establishment. If the dance is successful, the girls' physical services can be purchased. Babydoll is reluctant to dance until she is forced to, and at this point the movie really brings out the big guns of crazy...
You see, when Babydoll dances, her dance is so good, so sexy, so unspeakably raw and carnal that it completely entrances all men in range. Only we don't actually see the dance. We see it visualized as a fantasy action sequence where Babydoll blows the shit out of a bunch of zombie steampunk nazis, or gets into a swordfight with giant samurai mechas. It's awesome as all hell, and it's clear to me what Snyder's doing here. He's making the blatant point that these goofy girls'n'guns fantasies are incredibly juvenile and mean nothing, just like Babydoll's dances. They both play into adolescent male fantasies and give us exactly what we want. She's playing a part, and she knows it.
Once Babydoll realizes that she has this power, she comes up with a plan. In her fantasy, a wise Old Man has given her a list of four items that she needs to find to secure an escape. Her plan is to dance (which every man in the film will drop anything to see), while her fellow brothel-inmates steal the things they need from the incapacitated audience. The other girls in the brothel all have similarly fetishized names like "Blondie", "Sweet Pea" and "Rocket". All find themselves in the same position as Babydoll: seemingly born into a life as a thing, not a person.
Meanwhile, the dance-fantasies take the form of video game fetch quests that mirror the theft taking place in the brothel. These are set in a constantly evolving fantasia of male id, full of ridiculously complex scenes of mayhem and kinetic frenzy. No, the characters in the fantasies are in no danger of death, but Snyder's visual flair makes the sequences impossible to look away from. The imagery is astonishing, and while I'll admit that Snyder overuses slo-mo like he's John freakin' Woo, it works to great effect about 80% of the time. Who cares when everything's this beautiful?
Of course the characters in the brothel (and by extension in real life) are very much in danger of death, and therein lies the conflict. The fantasies become more and more difficult to maintain as the male characters begin to catch on to what's going on. Meanwhile, her dance is so impressive that her virginity is soon to be sold to an important high-roller, so time is not on her side.
This leads me to the second reason the brothel scenario works. It's strongly implied that in "reality" (the asylum) she's not just dancing, if you catch my drift. (EDIT: This actually isn't the case, as the R-rated cut reveals the film's plot to be less unsavory than I had imagined. Another example of how making things more vague can cause the audience to imagine something far creepier) The asylum is such an unspeakable nightmare world that it would be fairly brutal on the audience to spend more than 15 minutes there. Keeping things removed with another layer of fantasy allows the story to become that much more unreal, and something we'd actually enjoy watching.
With Sucker Punch, Zack Snyder is selling what is sadly a revolutionary moral: Sex is not by default degrading and terrible. A woman can be a sexual being, and even play into male stereotypes without being "impure" or "a whore". We're all used to fantasy characters like Lara Croft who are impossibly proportioned, but really just run around shooting people. Babydoll actually uses sex as a weapon. If she's going to be cast as a girl who's a fetish object, who's "clearly asking for it", she's still going to get the last laugh. At one point the ultimate put down is delivered to a villain: "You will NEVER get to have me... EVER.".
The biggest problem with Sucker Punch is the demands Snyder makes on his audience. It's a tough universe and moral for many viewers to swallow, and piling on plot complications and layers of abstraction means that most people aren't going to care enough to put in the effort required to unravel it all. It's incredibly hard to follow, there's no disputing that. There's nothing wrong with seeing a film and deciding that it's too much effort to be worth your time. That doesn't make you stupider than me, it just means that the movie didn't work for you.
Since I am a guy who loves to work his brain while watching a movie, even one with exploding runaway trains and robots, I loved every inch of Sucker Punch. Snyder's goal is a noble one, and the film's got style to burn, and is gripping to watch. It was definitely hamstrung by it's studio-enforced PG-13 rating and I will always dream of the R-rated masterpiece it could have been (EDIT: You don't have to dream! Watch the "Extended Cut" on the Blu-Ray). But I have a feeling that some members of the audience who are in fact young victimized women may react to it most positively of all. This is not Babydoll's story, it's theirs.