Saturday, March 3, 2012

Metal Philosopher v. MPAA - Exhibit A

Today I would like to shine the spotlight on the latest example of the MPAA being itself: ruining Zack Snyder's 2011 film Sucker Punch.  Normally I wouldn't discuss the same film twice in one week, but there's a good reason for doing so this time.  The PG-13 and R-rated cuts of Sucker Punch are two entirely different films.  I recently posted my immediate gushings about Sucker Punch, and was of the opinion that Snyder had made a needlessly difficult film, but one with rich depths to explore.  After seeing the R rated edit, I erupted into cheers over the closing credits.  The movie finally makes actual sense!  It's vibrant, full of life, more honest, and a hell of a lot more fun.  But Dave, you say, why on earth would the studio release a ruined version of their film to theaters anyway?  Let's get to that.

The plot has been discussed elsewhere, and I won't dwell on it unnecessarily.  Essentially there are three levels of "reality" in the film:

1) A young woman is forced into an asylum by an abusive step-father, where he bribes an orderly to have her swiftly and quietly labotomized.  The (all-female) inmates are put on stage and asked to revisit their personal traumas, ostensibly to cure them (though the orderly creepily remarks that it's a pretty hot show regardless).

2) For much of the film, the young woman visualizes the asylum as a high-class brothel.  In this world she is known as Baby Doll, and her virginity is for sale.  The creepy orderly is now their pimp.  The brothel girls are compelled to develop "personal dances" that they will perform to entice customers, who will purchase the services of the girls they like.

3) Baby Doll's dance turns out to be the most unimaginably erotic ever seen at the club, and male onlookers fall into a stupor witnessing it.  We never see the dance however, as during it Baby Doll retreats into a video-game like fantasy realm.  Here, she and the other girls engage in insane action sequences where they massacre cartoonish enemies (zombie nazis, orcs, robots, etc).  These sequences' drool-inducing effects on the audience are meant to be similar to the effect of Baby Doll's dances.

Some of this wasn't too easy to pick out in the original theatrical release for one simple reason: The MPAA hates it when people are honest about sex.  Their ratings board demanded cuts before giving the film a PG-13.  Snyder bowed to their demands, likely because he was contractually obligated to produce a PG-13 film.  Studios sometimes demand this because films that are rated R generally make far less money.  Since this project was probably rather difficult to finance, it's not a far fetched scenario for the the MPAA to have made Snyder its bitch.

The action scenes were shortened by several minutes.  Not a lot of specific content was cut, but the MPAA simply demanded less of it.  Bloodlessly slaying 1000 enemies must have unsettled them more than bloodlessly slaying 800 enemies.  Pretty much any scene that directly references the girls ever having sex or being intimidated was cut down or removed.  Many important shots were cut to the point where they seemed overly vague and tame.  Eventually, Snyder found that the effect of these edits was to make the brothel seem less objectionable, leaving viewers wondering what was so bad about it.

A very unfortunate casualty of this effect was a lavish musical number for the song "Love is the Drug", where all of the girls perform their dances to turn on the rich clients in the audience.  Each girls' dance has a unique theme with elaborate sets and special effects.  We see the men in the audience being turned on, as well as the gambling and organized crime activities that regularly happen at the club (unseen and unspoken of in the edited version).  Snyder cut this scene because after the rest of the film was neutered it made the brothel look like an absolute blast, which was not his intention at all.

Aside from removing one of the most amazing sequences in the film, the MPAA's interference changed the entire tone of the movie.  In the theatrical release everything seems more muted.  The film feels sleepier, greyer, uncomfortably vague.  I kept holding my breath for the edgy stuff that I felt lurking around the corner but it just wasn't there.  Sucker Punch (PG-13) feels like an unsettling and incoherent dream.  Sucker Punch R is alive and vibrant from start to finish.  There are ecstatic highs (such as the musical number) as well as unsettling lows (the objectionable stuff that the MPAA disagreed with).  The action sequences are longer, punchier, and also more fun.

Most troubling of all is that the girls in the R rated version are happier!  Alternate takes were used to make a few shots of the girls smiling less cheerful in the theatrical cut (because the idea of victims ever being happy is supposedly distasteful).  In the MPAAs world, you can show children a film that's clearly about victimized hookers as long you trivialize their plight by omitting details, and NONE OF THEM EVER HAVE MOMENTS OF JOY.

Another side effect of removing all references to sex, virginity, or victimization (which are kind of the three main topics of the film) was to render the film's metaphors incomprehensible.  The brothel's stage show is a clear analogue for the girls in the asylum engaging in "group therapy".  This metaphor still exists in the theatrical cut, but you've got to dig for it, since the stage show was entirely removed.

Finally the most egregious wound inflicted on Sucker Punch was the alteration of its ending.  In the R rated cut, the doctor delivering Baby Doll's labotomy is symbolized in the brothel as the suave, well-dressed High Roller.  He pays an ungodly sum of money to purchase her virginity, and a climactic scene shows the two of them in a bedroom, as he tries to convince her to give into him willingly, not to make him take her by force.  He offers her freedom from pain, freedom from responsibility, and all he requires is that she give herself to him.  His invitation is mirrored by the prospect of her being labotomized in the asylum, similarly checking out of the world and agreeing to become a helpless victim.

This entire sequence was removed, and with it the entire character of the High Roller.  He appears in one brief scene, but unless you knew beforehand who he was, you'd never realize it.  All references to Baby Doll's virginity are removed.  The PG-13 ending makes no goddamned sense.  Even I was unable to figure it out, and chalked it up to a weak script.  It's no wonder everyone hated the movie.

In it's R-rated form, Sucker Punch is a goddamn masterpiece.  I love it to death, and it's abhorrent that the MPAA demanded it be kneecapped and made incoherent for the supposed needs of its audience.  Let's make one thing clear: being honest about the sexual elements in a film is a good thing.  Talking around them and pretending that they aren't there is infinitely more creepy than dealing with them head on and putting them into context.  They made the film more unpleasant, so that it would be suitable for children.  Well done.

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