Reviewed by James MacDowell.
Locked away in a nightmarish mental hospital by her evil stepfather, 20-year-old ‘Baby Doll’ (Emily Browning) turns to fantasy: first imagining herself as the victim of a baroque brothel, then leading the mental escape of herself and her fellow female prisoners via an escalating series of battles against various mythical foes.
Save one or two dissenting voices, Sucker Punch has become (true to its name) the kind of critical punching-bag that only emerges every so often - the sort of film that’s assumed terrible from the outset, and whose reviews are thus a matter of one-upmanship, each critic eager to slam it harder than the last. What’s so strange about that in this case is that this movie, while certainly no masterpiece, happens to be quite obviously very interesting.
I would suggest that the extraordinary degree of blanket hatred stems partly from simple herd mentality - a desire to engage in all the fun, negative rhetoric. But the film also ticks a few boxes that usually encourage knee-jerk rejection - in particular, a focus on manifestly artificial style over plot or believable characters (as if this hierarchy is ever considered a de facto problem in, say, Godard). Equally, the film’s very interestingness is perhaps something of a problem too: this is unmistakably a movie with a certain amount of ambition, both in structure and theme, and if you’re already primed to dislike it, this is likely only to increase your wrath. Another very common objection is to the film’s sexual politics, which I address in great depth in the Alternate Take. For now, suffice to say that it should be impossible to discuss Sucker Punch’s treatment of gender without recourse to the concept of irony. Some reviewers seem to believe they’re catching the film out by noting that its main characters have names like ‘Blondie’ and ‘Sweet Pea’, or that its costumes are fetishistic and infantilizing. These are clearly things that the film is very self-consciously playing with and (to a degree) parodying, rather than merely presenting at face value. Irony alone is by no means a defence against accusations of sexism, but to ignore its presence is to fundamentally misrepresent the way Sucker Punch is addressing us.
Portions of the movie practice an almost textbook version of the kind of throw-it-all-in-the-pot approach to aesthetics and history that so many people object to in postmodernism: treating imagery only as images rather than engaging with their meanings - hollowing out everything to leave only surface. To wit: at one minute the girls are fighting samurai giants, then steam-powered WWI Germans, then dragons, then futuristic robots, and so on... Similarly indiscriminate is the approach to music: questionable covers of rock classics intermingle with original versions, which intermingle with remixes (in some ways, this feels rather like a cinematic equivalent of the ‘mashup'). If this is something you’ll object to on principle then you will most assuredly despise Sucker Punch. If, like me, you’re willing to take it as a logical extension of the film’s committed indulgence in a gigantic game of pop culture hopscotch, then there’s hope for your relationship with the movie.
Indeed, it’s more than possible to enjoy the film - if so inclined - on the level of its sheer absurd, incoherent insanity, which at times pushes it almost into the realm of the avant-garde. To some extent you have to settle into a quite particular headspace to get the most out of the experience. A frequent complaint has been how difficult it is to feel emotionally involved in any of the madly over-the-top action sequences, since - because we know them to be fantasies - there is essentially nothing at stake (very unusual for plot-and-character-centric mainstream Hollywood). This is true, but I must say that I considered this strategy an absolute treat. As someone who often finds himself dozing during the action scenes of contemporary blockbusters, I greatly appreciated being relieved of the responsibility of feigning to care about the perils on display. Because of this lack of danger, the fight scenes become purely, unrepentantly aesthetic experiences, allowing Snyder’s meticulously silly choreography and flashy techniques to be appreciated for their garish beauty and skill rather than serving as mere annoying window dressing. The most pertinent comparisons for these crazy flights into plotless sound and movement are, firstly, videogames (which, again, instinctively raises critical ire - because gaming is inherently bad, right...?) and, perhaps more tellingly, the legendarily excessive musical sequences of Busby Berkley (a poster for Golddiggers of 1933 appears in the background of a number of scenes).
Beyond these depthless pleasures, there is also a kind of seriousness at work in Sucker Punch, which will have to wait to be discussed in detail. Yet to avoid disappointment do be warned that the movie will feature nothing approaching ‘real characters’, nor does it have much in the way of a credible narrative - in fact, some of its worst moments come as a result of trying to provide such things. It is also far, far, from an unproblematically ‘girl power’ adventure. But it is also compellingly mad, rather fascinating in its thematic and narrative construction, and passes the Bechdel Test to boot. I find myself unable to say anything approaching this about most recent action films, thus convincing me that - at the very least - this film deserves much better than near-unanimous derision.
Read our in-depth Alternate Take here.
This review was published on April 10, 2011.
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