Warning: complete spoilers, much rant.
Up until about a week ago, I hadn’t planned on seeing Sucker Punch at the movies, primarily because I didn’t know it existed. That all changed when rumblings in the blogsphere alerted me both to the film itself and to the suggestion that it was a sexist, misogynistic piece of rape-obsessed trash, as opined (among others) by The Atlantic reviewer Sady Doyle and blogger Cassie Alexander. This did not provoke in me a desire to spend money at the box office so much as a profound feeling of disgust – and yet, I remained a little bit intrigued, too, if only because of the amount of controversy racking up. First, lead actresses Emma Browning and Abbie Cornish both defended the film, and then I saw a favourable review that had been published, of all places, on the Boston Area Rape Crisis Center blog, wherein the author praised it as “the best movie about dissociation [he’d] ever seen.”
Despite my initial reaction, Sucker Punch was starting to look like something I ought to see, if only for curiosity’s sake. Going in, I was prepared for the worst, but also open to the possibility of redemptive surprise, particularly as I’ve found Zack Snyder’s previous three efforts to be something of a mixed bag: I loathed 300, was on the fence about Watchmen, and liked Legend of the Guardians. Given that these were all adaptations, what then might I make of a story that Snyder had written himself? Accompanied by my long-suffering husband, I bought some popcorn and prepared to find out.
Visually and narratively, Sucker Punch operates in three different realms: the real world, where heroine Baby Doll has been committed to an asylum after her abusive step-father frames her for the murder of her little sister; the first dissociative layer, portrayed as a bordello, where Baby Doll and four of the other inmates plot their escape while enduring sexual abuse at the hands of the male orderlies; and the second, deeper dissociative layer, where the girls’ efforts to overcome their situation are expressed as fantastic battles against giant warriors, dragons, androids and – wait for it – steampunk zombie Nazis. (And I’ll bet you thought only Hellboy had those, right?) In honour of this approach, I’ve elected to critique the film on three different levels – construction, continuity and context – in order to cover all bases.
Are you sitting comfortably? Then we’ll begin.
Besides Baby Doll and her fellow inmates – Sweet Pea, Rocket, Amber and Blondie – Sucker Punch has three other noteworthy characters: villain Blue Jones, a crazed orderly (real world) and sadistic pimp (bordello); ally Vera Gorski, their psychiatrist (real world) and madame (bordello); and a character listed only as the Wise Man, who commands the girls during their fantasy battles. (He also appears in the real world, but we’ll get to that later.) From the moment she enters the asylum, Baby Doll is on a tight schedule: unless she can escape within five days, a doctor will come and lobotomise her. To this end, the Wise Man lists the items she needs to achieve a “perfect victory”: a map, fire, a knife, a key, and a fifth thing he refuses to name, which Baby Doll doesn’t mention to her friends. One by one, these items are acquired during the fantasy scenes, returning afterwards to the bordello realm, in which we spend the greatest amount of time. Our only visits to the real world, in fact, are spaced far apart: the very beginning and very end of the film. While this lends a certain sort of symmetry to the narrative, it’s a conceit which swiftly becomes problematic (more of which during the continuity section).
Despite their disparate themes, Zack Snyder’s previous films are united by a common visual aesthetic to which Sucker Punch is no exception: stylistic slow motion interspersed with lighting-fast flashes of violence and a sepia-tinted colour scheme give the film an eerie feel, while his trademark close-ups and swooping vistas provide a strong contrast between personal scenes and battles. The soundtrack is, I’ll admit, catchy, but at a price: the song-to-dialogue ratio is so heavily skewed that vital character development is done away with in favour of what are, effectively, music videos. Snyder’s distinctive visuals only compound this problem: the action scenes are long, almost totally unscripted except for the Wise Man’s briefings, and delivered with such a predictable rhythm that they soon become self-defeating, like endless cut-scenes in a video game.
As per the traditional laziness of the trashy action genre, our five man – or in this case, five girl – army is desperately under-characterised. Although we witness the chain of events leading to Baby Doll’s imprisonment, these opening scenes have no dialogue, leaning heavily on the straw-man Evil Step-Father image to justify her wrongful incarceration. Of the other girls, only sisters Sweet Pea and Rocket are ever given the slightest bit of history, and even this is flimsily done: Rocket ran away from home after clashing with her parents, and Sweet Pea, despite not being part of the argument, followed. How they ended up in the asylum is anyone’s guess – but then, there’s not much real world logic to Sucker Punch, even when we’re actually in the real world.
As was demonstrated by the recent success of Inception, it is entirely possible for a Hollywood blockbuster to switch back and forth between multiple interlocking realities in a way that actually makes sense. Sucker Punch, however, does not do this. Partly, this is down to laziness, but there’s also an ample helping of fridge logic, too. For starters, it’s inferred that the real world is not the present day, but rather sometime in the 1950s, an assumption supported not just by the cars, technology, clothing and general mood of these scenes, but by the type of asylum Baby Doll is sent to. The fact that her step-father openly bribes an orderly to admit her might still work in the present day, if one were willing to explain the visuals as an affectation; but the threat of a lobotomy conducted via a chisel through the skull-front is undeniably past tense. To borrow from another recent film, think Shutter Island with women. That’s our base level of reality, and even with the dearth of early dialogue, it’s still as plain as day.
And that, alas, is a problem. Even allowing for the creation of an internally dissociative fantasy, I cannot buy the presence in that world of anachronisms – one or two, maybe, but the number here is enormous. Baby Doll’s outfit, for instance, is pure weaponised Japanese schoolgirl, down to the fact that her gun is accessorised with cute little dangling charms. The same is true of all the fantasy costumes, never mind the presence of touch-screen technology, battle suits and silver-gleaming androids. This is further compounded by glitches in the bordello realm: near the end, one male orderly plays with a touchscreen device, his ears adorned with the trademark white earbuds of an iPod, while earlier, a major plot point revolves around Sweet Pea’s ability to photocopy a map of the asylum. Or at least, that’s what we assume she’s done: a machine that looks like a very old, very simple photocopier is shown in Blue’s office, and if Sweet Pea was only going to draw a copy – a lengthy and improbable option – she wouldn’t need to take the original off the wall.
But these are all nitpicks when placed against the bigger problem: understanding how anything in either fantasy world possibly corresponds to the real. In the bordello level, for instance, Baby Doll dances to distract the men while the other girls steal each item – but what does the dancing represent? Sex? Are we witnessing a calculated seduction of all the male orderlies as expressed through Baby Doll’s decision to dance for them, or is she taking advantage of their ongoing coercion? When Amber takes a lighter from one of the men, giggling in his lap while Baby Doll dances nearby, what is actually happening in the real world? Either way, Baby Doll is meant to be so distracting that the men don’t notice the other girls sneaking around – and that’s before you factor in that Baby Doll’s dance is always the cue to segue into the higher fantasy world.
During the botched theft that results in Rocket’s death, for instance, we switch back to the bordello from the fantasy to witness two interpretations of the same event. In the fantasy battle, Rocket is blown up by a bomb on a speeding train, unable to escape because her jetpack is broken. In the bordello, we see her stabbed by the cook, dying in Sweet Pea’s arms while finishing the conversation they’d started on the train. At no point do we drop down into the real world – because, of course, doing so would reveal the entire action to make no sense at all. If the bordello-dance is already a layer of metaphor, then how do we explain a reality in which Baby Doll distracts the cook in his tiny, cramped kitchen so effectively that he doesn’t notice that four other girls are occupying the same space? The final break with reality comes when Blue kills both Amber and Blondie in the bordello world, with Gorski and several other orderlies as witnesses. Clearly, the girls must die by Blue’s hand in the real world, too: and yet, despite this overwhelming evidence of his savagery, Blue remains in charge. In fact, his next act is to try and rape Baby Doll, who defends herself by stabbing him in the shoulder. So total is the dissonance between the bordello world and reality that when, much later, real-world Gorski is explaining Baby Doll’s history to the lobotomist, she mentions that yes, the patient did stab Blue, but omits to mention that Blue is a murdering rapist. And lest we think she’s simply glossing over a tragic, traumatic event, in the very next scene, we see that Blue is still working at the asylum. As, for that matter, is the equally murdering cook.
Let me repeat that, in case you missed it: three girls have been killed by two staff members in the space of a week. Two of the murders took place in front of multiple staff witnesses. And yet neither man is disciplined, or queried, or imprisoned or suspected or anything until – cue the Narrative Convenience fairy, and also the fairy of Unbelievably Stupid And Offensive Plots – just after Baby Doll’s lobotomy.
Oh, yeah. She gets lobotomised at the end. Apparently, the fifth thing Baby Doll needed was to sacrifice herself so Sweet Pea could escape instead. And by “sacrifice herself”, I mean “get lobotomised”. By a doctor who didn’t really want to do it. In a way that makes no sense. Or, sorry: in a way that makes even less sense than you might already think, because in order to get Baby Doll lobotomised, Blue had to forge Gorski’s signature on the paperwork. Except that Gorski, who is standing right there throughout the procedure while holding the paperwork, objects to the lobotomy taking place. And presumably, if Blue had to forge her signature to get it done – this is, after all, what Baby Doll’s father bribed him to do – then only Gorski has the authority to authorise lobotomies. So you could be forgiven for wondering why, at some point prior to Baby Doll getting lobotomised, she didn’t stop to look at the fucking paperwork and question why the lobotomy was taking place. Oh, no – that particular revelation is saved for three seconds after an irreversible procedure has already happened. Which is also when, all of a sudden, the other orderlies suddenly declare that they don’t want to help Blue hurt the girls any more. Oh, but they’re still willing to leave him all alone with a newly lobotomised girl they’ve just helped strap to a chair – it’s just that they’ll feel bad about it now.
And then the cops come – literally, they reach the place in about two seconds – and arrest Blue, just in time to stop him molesting Baby Doll (well, molesting her more, anyway – he still gets a kiss in). And not because he killed Amber and Blondie, though. Heavens forbid! No: Gorski has dobbed him in for falsifying her paperwork.
Capping off this carnival of narrative errors and continuity gaffes, we come to the final scene: the newly escaped Sweet Pea at a bus station, trying to find her way home. As the bus doors open, the police appear and try to question her on the suspicion that she is, indeed, an asylum escapee. It looks like she’s doomed, but wait! Who should the bus driver turn out to be but the Wise Man himself?That’s right: the figment of the girls’ collective dissociative imaginations who commanded them through their battles is actually a bus driver, that is to say, a person previously unknown to them who actually exists in the real world. And of course he lies to the police, telling them that Sweet Pea has been on his bus for miles now, when of course he’s never seen her before (But has he? Wait, no, because that makes no fucking sense) and so they let her go, and on she gets, right behind a young male passenger whose face, as it happens, we’ve also seen in the fantasy world, fighting in the trenches of the zombified World War I. Which also makes no sense.
Yeah. About that.
Speaking in a recent and undeniably sympathetic interview, Zack Snyder said that Sucker Punch was “absolutely” a “critique on geek culture’s sexism.” Regarding two early moments of metatextual dialogue, he has the following to say:
“She [Sweet Pea] says, “The dance should be more than titillation, and mine’s personal,” and that’s exactly a comment on the movie itself. I think 90% are missing it, or they just don’t care… As soon as the fantasy starts, there’s that whole sequence where Sweet Pea breaks it down and says, “This is a joke, right? I get the sexy school girl and nurse thing, but what’s this? A lobotomized vegetable? How about something more commercial?” That is basically my comment on the film as well. She’s saying, “Why are you making this movie? You need to make a movie more commercial. It shouldn’t be so dark and weird.””
In some ways, this is a perfect explanation of the film’s failure. Snyder has tried to be ironic in his handling of sexiness and objectification, taking schoolgirl fetishism, harem fantasies and sexy nurses and putting them in a situation which is decidedly unsexy -that is to say, a deeply misogynistic environment rife with violence, rape and abuse of power – in order to make his male audience members feel guilty about finding the girls attractive, and thereby forcing them to realise that their lusts align with those of the villainous male characters. To quote the same interview:
“Someone asked me about why I dressed the girls like that, and I said, “Do you not get the metaphor there? The girls are in a brothel performing for men in the dark. In the fantasy sequences, the men in the dark are us. The men in the dark are basically me; dorky sci-fi kids.””
It’s a self-aware sentiment – and yet, the film itself is anything but self-aware. Despite his intentions, Snyder has created a film which systematically disenfranchises its women in order to teach men a lesson about not disenfranchising women. Which, you know, would seem to defeat the purpose. Certainly, it’s possible to empathise with the characters, despite how thinly they’re drawn – but that’s because the entire film is engineered to paint women as victims and men as abusive bastards. What Snyder sees as a dark, edgy ending, perhaps even a cautionary tale about the dangers of male lust – that is, Baby Doll’s lobotomy and the deaths of all her friends bar Sweet Pea – actually reads as a story of victimisation: the girls couldn’t save themselves. Even in the very depths of their fantasies, they still needed a male general to formulate their plans and give them orders. I understand the sexy costumes of the bordello realm, to an extent – it’s a logical leap of dissociation, given the culture of sexual abuse – but why, then, would the girls still imagine themselves in titillating outfits during the second realm’s fantasy battles? The answer is, they wouldn’t: those scenes are there as fanservice, not to make a disquieting point about fetishism and rape, and however much Snyder might have wanted the film to rebuke exactly the sort of objectification its merchandising provokes, the Hollywood factor means that in the end, it can’t help but reinforce the very cultures it attempted to satirise.
In the end, Sucker Punch is a sexist wasteland: a ham-fisted attempt to make chauvinist geeks care about rape by luring them in with action scenes. The idea of creating strong, competent, interesting female characters whose looks play no part in their marketability is apparently too radical for Snyder, who might have saved himself a lot of bother by watching Quentin Tarantino’s Death Proof and seeing what real girl action heroes can do, if only you don’t embrace the “rocks fall, everyone dies” approach to storytelling. Because, look: when your five main female characters are all being raped, wrongfully imprisoned and generally abused; when the only names they have are diminutive, sexy-sounding nicknames bestowed on them by rapists, which they then use even among themselves; when you dress them in sexy outfits, call it ironic and then merchandise statuettes of the characters wearing those outfits to your male fanbase; when your female resistors, even in their deepest dissociative fantasies, must still take all their orders from a Wise Man; when all your girls bar one are either murdered or lobotomised at the end, and that selfsame Wise Man calls it a “perfect victory”; then you have not created a film which is empowering for women. Instead, you have taken the old, sexist trope of hurting female characters to motivate goodness, chivalry and protectiveness in their male counterparts to a new and disturbing level: that is, you are hurting female characters to motivate goodness, chivalry and protectiveness in the male audience. And I’m sorry, but I just can’t bring myself to see that as an improvement. Because of how, you know. It’s not.
Great soundtrack, but.