Sunday, March 27, 2011

Fight for Your Right (To Look Good Fighting): SUCKER PUNCH

For several years now, I’ve had Zack Snyder in my mental list of directors with untapped potential. He has a great command of visual style and seems to be continually on the verge of a masterpiece. In fact, some days I might go so far as saying that he’s a good director but not yet a good filmmaker. That is to say, he can create the visuals with incredible technical precision, but he can’t make them add up. For every film of his that truly succeeds in its own way – be it his zippy, surprising Dawn of the Dead remake or his fascinating, if a bit stiff, Watchmen adaptation – Snyder turns out a bloody mess like 300 or a ridiculous headache like last year’s Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga’Hoole. That’s quite a mixed bag, but it is perhaps his most recent film, Sucker Punch, that finally marks him as a major talent. No, it’s not because it’s a cinematic marvel, but rather because it’s a film of such all-encompassing awfulness that it has to take major talent to conceive, create, and execute. It’s out of the ordinary, and it even has a faint glimmer of mad genius hidden somewhere, but it’s hardly good.

Sucker Punch plays out like a sticky, feverish doodle in the margins of a teenage boy’s notebook. It’s about a creepy insane asylum (run by Oscar Isaac and Carla Gugino) with an inmate population that consists seemingly entirely of sexy schoolgirls. One of these girls, Baby Doll (Emily Browning), imagines that it’s actually a kind of burlesque brothel and then further escapes from even her own imagination by going deeper inside her mind. She pretends that she and some of the other girls (Abbie Cornish, Vanessa Hudgens, Jena Malone, and Jamie Chung) are actually fighting giant ninja statues wielding machine guns and zombie steampunk Nazi robots and dragons and other robots! They, of course, are armed with samurai swords, biplanes, jet-packs, and flying rock-‘em-sock-‘em jet-pack machine gun robots and take advice from a walking fortune cookie who takes the craggy human form of Scott Glenn. Coherence is not a high priority here.

It’s a film all about escaping the constant threat of sexual violence by retreating into video-game violence, about removing the threat of being objectified by objectifying yourself before anyone else can. As you can probably tell, the movie sends mixed messages. It’s unforgiving and odd, all too willing to leer at the pretty girls in tight clothes and short skirts. Sure, it pushes in for slimy close-ups of the male figures as well (even someone as square-jawed handsome as Jon Hamm comes across as looking seedy), but the constant tension of being on the brink of horrible abuse never shakes free. This is a nightmare world of a movie that is all too content to sit on the surface and offer up nothing but dime store philosophizing as a potential escape.

Fittingly, the first thing the audience is presented with is a proscenium and a closed curtain. After the logos, the curtain pulls away, drawing open the world of the film. Snyder announces right off of the bat that this will be a film of arch theatricality, of base emotions writ large. Indeed it is, but this is a film that, pardon the pun, pulls its punches. It’s various settings (asylum, brothel, battlefields) are never utilized for their dramatic potential; the cuts between the various levels of reality are never not jarring, always carrying the feeling that important plot level detail has been skipped. We’re meant to be digging further and further into the psyche of these imprisoned and abused young women and yet every fantasy sequence takes us further and further from them.

In the end, this is a film that wants to invite you to leer and then scold you for it. It’s a film that wants to sit on the surface level of “Isn’t that cool?” and then pretend that it’s all about “you being your own key to freeing yourself” or some such ponderous claptrap that fills the concluding voice-over. It wants to have its skimpily clothed warrior chicks and respect them too (a feat that wouldn't be impossible under more capable directorial hands), much like that doodling teen might be able to draw a girl, but might not have a clue about who she really is. Sucker Punch is just a sleazy exploitation film that thinks itself too serious and moralizing (or maybe just too big-budget) to have the convictions to stand behind its barely buried id.

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