2011 // USA // Zack Snyder // March 31, 2011 // Theatrical Print (St. Louis Cinemas Moolah Theater)Sucker Punch, Zack Snyder's first attempt at an original screenplay, is unquestionably derivative and ridiculous, but it's also the rare film that embraces those qualities with a ruthless enthusiasm pitched halfway between adolescent glee and auteurist obsession. In his films, Snyder doesn't conceal his references, homages, and blatant rip-offs, but neither does he wink, Tarantino-style, while presenting them. He seems to accept as a fundamental and uncontroversial principle of movie-making that his works exist within a broader tapestry of cinema, music, television, comics, video games, and even advertisements, all of which freely flow into and out of one another. Perhaps disappointingly, Snyder rarely uses this assumed inter-textual quality of his work for the purposes of deconstructing genre or medium. He, does, however, evince a crude fascination with storytelling in general and with the power (for weal or woe) of private narratives. Witness the acknowledgment of triumphalist national myth-making embedded in 300's pep-rally frame story, or Ozymandias' arrogant and sensational conception of his destiny in Watchmen.
In Sucker Punch, Snyder foregrounds his absorption with personal fictions, utilizing it as an explicit aspect of the film's plot, structure, and themes. And, boy-howdy, this seems to have thrown the critics for a loop, as the overwhelming complaint about the film appears to be that it is frustratingly incoherent. (This morning, Google was returning over 66,000 results for "Sucker Punch"+"Zack Snyder"+"confusing".) To be sure, the film is an unrepentant Bad Movie, possessing an abundance of missteps: wince-worthy dialogue, thin characters, hambone performances, greeting-card moralizing, laughably literalist music design, and, of course, the director's characteristic obsession with ultra-slow-motion, regardless of a scene's content or context. However, it's not clear to me why so many critics lost their way in the film's story, as Sucker Punch is essentially a straightforward Hero's Journey with a half-twist of Jacob's Ladder. We're not talking about Michael Haneke here, or even Chistopher Nolan, for Christ's sake. Frankly, the film doesn't offer much wiggle room for trippy arguments over what it is "really" about. In fact, the plot can be summarized in one sentence: unjustly committed to a corrupt mental asylum, a young woman (Emily Browning) plots her escape with the aid of her fellow inmates. That's it.
What's deliriously appealing about Sucker Punch is the novel way that Snyder conveys that simple plot: through a sequence of nested fantasies that re-imagines the events of the asylum escape in outlandish, anachronistic multi-genre contexts. Thus, the mental asylum becomes a rococo dancehall and brothel run by oily mobsters in sharkskin suits. The brothel in turn becomes a steampunk Great War battlefield stalked by Prussian zombies; and also a sinister castle swarming with armored orcs and dragons; and also a monorail speeding to a glowing metropolis on a distant planet. Often, the exact details of what is "actually" happening are cryptic, although Snyder emphatically illustrates the repercussions of events, maintaining the forward momentum of the underlying (and mostly hidden) asylum escape narrative throughout. It's a risky approach, one that underlines the pre-fabricated and disposable character of the film's costume and scene changes, even as it revels in the sheer awesomeness of over-the-top, anime-shaded fantasy and science-fiction spectacle. Unsurprisingly, Sucker Punch borrows heavily from a legion of films for its story, form, and adornments: One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest, The Fall, Moulin Rouge!, Brazil, The Matrix, Suspiria, and The Lord of the Rings, to name just a few. (Scott Pilgrim vs. The World is probably of too recent a vintage.)
Ultimately, I think it works quite well, if only a free-wheeling, go-for-broke entertainment with a giddy appreciation for geek-culture cool and a tad more ambition than sense. Unquestionably, the whole thing looks damn lovely: the "comic book gothic" production design entices, the opulent burlesque costumes elicit gapes, and the green-screened, color-corrected digital vistas are wondrous and distinctive, as one expects from Snyder. Oddly enough, Sucker Punch is also the director's least troublesome film from a political and cultural standpoint, which isn't saying much, but at least it represents progress. One can detect some wriggles of Jungian psychology underneath all the roaring biplanes and robot samurai, but such gestures are far too underdeveloped to be taken seriously. Best to just sit back and enjoy the ride.