28 March 2011

First Impressions: Sucker Punch

Alright, I saw this one. Zach Snyder's Sucker Punch (2011) is exactly what you expect from his directorial history, the trailers and hype. You may have a little doubt that it looks like a good movie, perhaps too much style over substance, a muddled plot and lots of sexy ladies. This is all absolutely true. This may have been the worst Zatch Flick I've ever seen (And I've seen all but that Owl Movie. What the hell), but that's not to say it's totally without merit. There are some interesting things going on here, I only wish they could be supported by a good film crafted around them.

I WAS unprepared for a movie this bad

As you're undoubtedly aware, I had a decently dim outlook going into this film and it didn't disappoint. This has become pretty divisive among the same spectrum - ultimately is this flick exploitative of women or empowering for them? Some interneteers strongly fall in the exploitative camp, others side with Zack's female defense. Go read both of those and then come back.

Welcome back. We'll get into that Lady Topic later, but let's first examine this film like any other film. Regardless of its message, it's really just not that good. The acting is pretty terrible and painfully flat, the script has a lot of problems, the dialogue is painful and the narrative is extremely weak, requiring layers and extended action sequences that are essentially hyperbolised metaphors to sustain the running time. It is just structurally a poor movie. This of course hurts its goals of showcasing a strong feminine action romp.

This should have been a great opportunity to display some strong female butt-kicking characters but none exist in this movie. Spoilers aside, Baby Doll, Sweet Pea and Rocket are the only substantial characters. As this film is built upon heavy obvious symbolism and various dream or false reality sequences, it is clear that Snyder symbolises their importance by giving them much more to do in the dream sequences. Blondie and Amber aren't more than plastic dolls, symbolised by Amber existing only to pilot various craft and Blondie having nothing to do ever. Their deaths aren't important. Carla Gugino is also worthless until the end. A film can't be empowering that features exchangeable female characters who die without the audience feeling anything. It's as if Zack is fridge-stuffing for girl power.

Let's even repeat those very distinguishing names again. Baby Doll. Sweet Pea. Rocket. Amber. Blondie. Absolutely interchangeable, mostly pet names (a man, Blue Jones the primary antagonist gives Baby Doll her name) which strongly implies that they are dependent on a world dominated by males. This is of course true in the context of the film, but since Zack's stated goal is female empowerment it's just too easy to call out bullshit. If they were empowered couldn't they very easily give each other different proper names? This akin to Black Slaves rejecting the names White Owners gave them for more African ones (and the brothel the girls perform in is easily likened to slavery - there are very easy allusions to be made here, Zack). I mean, Sweet Pea and Rocket are sisters - why don't they call each other the names their parents gave them? This may seem like a basic complaint, but names are everything, controlling names and world a the most basic forms of power. Thus at its most basic level, the men in this film have all the power. Again, this is clearly Zack's point and his goal is to have these ladies rise up and t
ake that power - but they need to start by changing the basics that the men have laid down.

Meet the disinterest stare of the new action hero
There is so much wrong with this movie. This is going to take forever. Baby Doll herself hardly speaks for the first thirty minutes and there isn't that much to her character at all. She's just this blank, pale slat. This is perhaps why at the end she literally deigns her existence as nothing more than another object to allow a more developed character (Sweet Pea) to escape. She also freely admits that this wasn't her story at all. Good enough - but if this is all true she's still incredibly uninteresting to watch for two fucking hours, Zack. That's one of the core issues here - as any review on the net has said - it's style over substance. The problem really is that good movies in this genre have both.

So at its core, the Characters in this film are terrible. What about the story though? Sucker Punch is a succession of weak narratives and extended metaphors to cover otherwise uninteresting plot points. The film exists as a few overlapping realities that connect to each other through symbolism and metaphors - such as the Map that exists in the same place in both the Mental Institution (Primary Reality), the Brothel (Secondary Reality) and World War I Front Lines (Tertiary Reality). The problem is that the crossover between these realities seems very arbitrary unlike the great importance it has in similar films like The Matrix (1999), Identity (2003) or Inception (2010). Hell, its basically a sexualised and heavily violent and cruel version of I Am the Cheese. I think I read that for my 7th Grade Language Arts class. Remember when English was called Language Arts and History was called Social Studies? Golly Gee.

Anyway, basically, it's very clear that the Primary Reality would have been more difficult to accept than the more real threat of the Secondary. Girls in a Mental Institution have less freedom than those in a Brothel, and it's harder to believe that the girls would have the success in retrieving their necessary items for escape. Actually now that I'm thinking of it, what the hell did they do in the Mental Institution to grab the lighter...or anything - is Baby Doll doing sexy dances to distract the male orderlies in the Hospital? Or is she really just being excellent through an extended Will Ferrell-like blackout. Back on track, all the Secondary Reality seems kind of pointless other than to support a weak core story. Ultimately there isn't much here - the core plot of Sucker Punch is a girl retrieving four objects in five days then sacrificing herself so another girl can escape. The thing is, tho it all seems dangerous, it's really not that difficult to retrieve each object. Thus we can say that the Fantasy Action Sequences while by far the most entertaining parts of the film aesthetically, are equally pointless. It's uninteresting that Amber just leans in and snatches a lighter from the Mayor's breast pocket. If Baby Doll pretends it's a dragon through super-metaphor power though, it becomes much cooler. In all it is really just a blanket for a weak story.

Also subtle Anime allusions
On that note, the action sequences are good but there's hardly any sense of danger. If you take some similar films I mentioned earlier like The Matrix or Inception that rely on dream sequences or otherwise alternate realities, they preserve a sense of constant danger. In The Matrix the Agents and Machines are established to be a constant fearsome threat. In Inception there is also constant danger mostly because the characters don't have super-abilities like in The Matrix or Sucker Punch. Their only advantages are planning ahead, making puzzles and not much else (that's why Inception tho dealing with dreams is still a very good movie - the danger and stakes are always present). Nothing seems frightening in Sucker Punch from the first time that Baby Doll single-handedly whoops the Three Samurai to her killing steam germans (a cool concept) and dragons. The only time it starts to unwind is when the circuitry fails when retrieving the knife and Rocket actually dies (figuratively and actually). This kind of scene should almost have happened earlier instead of later in the movie. That would demonstrate that their plan actually could go wrong and present something other than a straightforward cadence to the narrative. The movie sets up its stones so precariously though that if this were to happen early and the characters responded accordingly, the movie would fall apart. It's just a sign of really terrible writing.

Those are all some major problems. There's nothing smooth here anywhere to make up for it though. Zack goes out of his way to establish that they aren't killing any real people. The German steam zombies, the Orcs, the weird stone samurai and the Mechano-men all come conveniently without blood or guts. Was this to secure the PG-13 rating in an attempt to boost profits that would seemingly be lost if this was R? Studio pressure? It hasn't really had a whole lot of success anyway. The problems with this film are very very deep and the attempt at covering them up is laughable.

Also the nature of the film is very straight forward for the kind of film it is. Again, you're left feeling curious what the point of all those alternate realities were. There isn't a lot of room for ambiguity or a major reason to not believe that the Primary Reality was anything but the truth. The Bus Driver at the end played by The Wise Man is the only thing that may show that there's more to this movie than meets the eye as he exists at that moment outside of Baby Doll's imagination which seems to conflict with the predetermined rules of the movie (or does he? does she fabricate Sweet Pea's final escape? who knows, it's poorly written).

I hardly touched upon the sexuality here - in general, I don't really understand Zack Snyder's accusation that Geek Culture is sexist - they're just afraid of girls, man. Lay off. In my preview post I wondered outloud how this movie would be treated with an All-Male cast instead of an All-Female. Actually, keeping the same exact Brothel idea with all-boys is kind of interesting. Would escape be any less pertinent? More so, likely, but the gay joke would be far too easy in sloppy hands. If the genders were wholly exchanged, well, we know what happens.

Yeah but you should see it in Autumn!

And lastly can I just say this - why the fuck does everything need to be CGI? This flick was ridiculous, at this point I'm wondering if it really helps the atmosphere at all or detract from the suspension of disbelief. I'm really frustrated with this movie. I do think that the cultural concepts of his film deserve some more addressing, which seems to be all over the internet at the moment. As for now, regardless of its message...this is just a terrible movie in every way.

Although the battle scenes were pretty cool.

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