There are various kinds of bad films. There is the plain and simple bad; the guilty pleasure; the shocking disappointment; the offensive film and so on. Then there is a rarer category, the fascinatingly bad film: one that has an interesting concept or some daring ideas which engage you and make you ponder but collapses completely at the stage of execution. Sucker Punch is one such film. It takes a gimmicky but fairly stunning concept and quickly spirals out of control as it finds itself way out of its depth ending up as a glorious but incoherent mess.
The film is two and a half stories packed into one narrative. The primary story is of a girl (Emily Browning) who is institutionalized in a cuckoo house when her stepfather falsely implicates her for the murder of her sister. Filmy, I know. She has five days before she is lobotomized thanks to an orderly (bribed by the stepfather) and must escape within that time. To fight her battle, she constructs an alternate reality in her head where the madhouse becomes a burlesque club cum whorehouse; the psychiatrist becomes Madame Gorski (Carla Gugino); the orderly becomes the sleazy club-owner (Oscar Isaac) and the patients become exotic dancers: Amber (Jamie Cheung), Sweet Pea (Abbie Cornish), Blondie (Vanessa Anne Hudgens) and Rocket (Jena Malone). In this reality, Baby Doll (Browning again) must escape the whorehouse before a High Roller (Jon Hamm) comes in five days and claims her virginity. Still with me? Because then, there is the third reality, where Baby Doll’s guardian angel/wise man/creepy-old-guy-in-inexplicably-different-avatars (Scott Glen) advises her on how to escape and each stage of the plan is conjured as an action packed adventure: fighting a ghost army of Nazis, bomb detonations on alien planets, sieges involving dungeons and dragons; and more, lots more.
Zach Snyder (300, Watchmen) is an accomplished storyteller; there is no doubt about that. Give him a good story and he knows how to tell it. The greatest misfortune for Sucker Punch is that Zach Snyder is not only telling the story, he is also writing it. This is his first film based on an original story and screenplay (co-written by himself and Steve Shibuya, also a first time writer). While he directs the film to the best of his abilities, he fails rather spectacularly as a story writer. The film starts off with a very interesting concept and successfully navigates its entry into the three realities. Alas, on its way out, it gets caught up in a maze of inexplicable contradictions and contrivances and consequently, the story collapses entirely under its own weight.
The fundamental flaw in the writing is that while the second and third realities are at least reasonably analogised and interlinked, the primary story is conveniently forgotten leaving the film with little sense, if any. The screenplay is disastrously bad where the sage advice of the Wise Man (Glenn, as he is credited) seem to have dropped straight out of bad Hallmark cards and there is no character development worth talking about. Thematically, the film often is quite offensive in its treatment of women and warped, borderline perverse ideas of girl power. As far as being sexy is concerned, it is curiously unsuccessful. These, along with the PG-13 rating, make it hard to tell who the movie is for: it will do little for pubescent boys or action junkies and absolutely nothing for women. I must admit though that Snyder knows his pop culture well and throws in a dizzying number of references throughout the narrative. But these seem indulgent at best since they don’t provide any meaning to the film. The conclusion of the film, in my humble opinion, is downright nonsensical and removes any chance of salvaging the proceedings and providing any coherence to the film. It is in moments like these that you wonder where Christopher Nolan is when you need him!
However, the interesting (and frustrating) thing is that, as a production, the film has more than a fair share of brilliant moments. The stylistic visuals, typical of Snyder’s films, are provided here in a large supply. The camerawork is striking. The action sequences are spectacular in places. The Nazi battle sequence, stylistically similar to the animated 9, provides some dazzling and unforgettable visuals. The dragon scene, though reminiscent of Lord of the Rings, had moments where my jaw dropped. Music is used in several places to provide meaning and set the mood (admittedly drawing inspiration from Moulin Rouge!) and the re-arrangement of some of the tunes by Tyler Bates and the cast is pretty impressive. The production design and costume work is an interesting mix of styles and times which gives the film the dream like look it needed. We see 1930s costumes and art work, fantasy, manga and sci-fi elements, classic kung-fu cinema settings, and even 1940s war recreations with medieval fortresses. However, it is all for naught as the story does not know what to do with these moments and how to pull these disparate elements together into something called a narrative. Further, the push for a PG-13 rating robs many moments of their edge and impact and the toning down of several sequences looks forced and obvious.
In terms of performances, Emily Browning is miscast as Baby Doll as she conveys neither the innocence nor the determination of the character. She seems expressionless, cold and oddly detached throughout. Most of the actors are wasted in the enterprise. The only notable exception is Jena Malone who is dazzling as Rocket. She looks and acts the part and even makes you care for her fate. Oscar Isaacs is passable as the oily club owner. And Carla Gugino, as much as I love you, Cate Blanchett just called. She wants her Indy Jones accent back.
Ultimately, Sucker Punch is a fascinatingly bad film. On one hand, it is soaked in ambition with a great concept and features some outstanding production work delivering some original, inventive visuals. On the other, it squanders its potentially epic premise thanks to some Razzie-worthy pathetic writing, forgettable characters and (mostly) poor performances. It is a long, laborious and agonizing film that goes wrong at so many levels (quite literally in this instance), that it is difficult to keep count. Dear Mr. Snyder, next time, stick to directing adaptations please?