Sucker Punch (2011) — Movie Review
I write reviews based on four categories: Coherence, Intensity of Effect, Complexity, and Originality, each based on a score of 1 to 5. The total score is averaged out of these parts.
Sucker Punch is a tantalizingly terrible film. If you were to go to letterboxd for ratings, you would see a wide range of scores and their distribution, and I think I can understand why. I have seen this movie perhaps four or five times, and each time my experience through it goes like this: first I’m sort of dumbfounded I am in the position of watching Sucker Punch again. The music video of Baby Doll’s prologue reminds me that this is a Zack Snyder film, and I could be watching Watchmen instead, which in my mind will likely be his best work. Once the first fantasy sequences settle in, I feel a little more comfortable, more interested. The World War I sequence, featuring Bjork’s “Army of Me” is easily the peak of the film. It has the best sequences, has an arc to the combat that gives it a cohesive beginning, middle, and end, and the tension of the girls having to stick together rather than break apart is just enough. From there, the film is a slow and steady decline in interest, followed by a sharp descent into regret and longing to have that time back. Perhaps a fuller review might uncover why this repeated experience.
Sucker Punch feels almost like a video game for its structure. Baby Doll is charged with acquiring certain items that can assist the girls in getting out of the life they’ve found themselves in. And each set-piece begins when Baby Doll dances so as to distract whatever man stands in their way. There is an intentional layering of Baby Doll’s realities so as to make her final days at the asylum an ambiguous one, but to Snyder’s credit he manages to sign-post a lot of these differences to keep the viewer informed. Much of the parallels to the items and to the locations of Baby Doll’s dancing square up well with the action set-pieces, so as to narrativize the fantasy action in novel ways. Each new set piece features some similarities of roles with the differences of the spaces they inhabit. Perhaps the coherence of Sucker Punch is its best quality, to the detriment of some other qualities. The ending is foreshadowed heavily, so the twist is one that makes sense. A 4 out of 5 works here.
Intensity of Effect
There’s no denying at this point that, love him or hate him, Snyder is an impressive visualizer of ideas. His work in slow-motion is difficult to swallow after so many films, and his continued fetishes for things like watching a gun shoot a bullet, watching the casing hit the ground, makes each subsequent rewatch that much more painful. To me, Snyder’s biggest problem is the separation between the visuals and the story being told. Sure, there are moments of pathetic fallacy, but there is just something about the look of each film that does not convey the internal psychology of the characters in quite the same way. Even in a film like Sucker Punch, where the separate realities are very much intended to externalize the inner problems of our characters, especially Baby Doll, I still feel a strange separation between them. If I had to guess as to why, I would say it has something to do with having an embodied set for characters. I think the most interesting character scene in Sucker Punch is one where Rocket and Sweet Pea debate helping Baby Doll in the dressing room. The camera wheels around the characters and does a trick where it passes through a mirror and continues in one shot. This is a skillful technique, but what I appreciate more is the fact that the characters are in a particular place, with details and objects, and they are interacting with the set. It’s small, but it helps to give a sense of place. And perhaps quite a lot of the slow-motion and CGI laden places sap these places of their vitality.
There is a lot that goes into these action sequences, and it would be pretentious of me not to acknowledge them. Everybody seems to be talking about John Wick these days, but every time I come back to these features, I cannot help but appreciate the work that went into the fights. Snyder’s best quality in the action sequences of Sucker Punch is that the camera pans along with a violent strike to see the strike connect. The weight and impact of these shots are so great. Compared to John Wick, while single takes are great for fight choreography to breathe and turn into a dance, much of the work the actresses did in these fights still manages to convey a violence that I just want more of. I remember feeling this way for the Nite Owl and Laurie fight in Watchmen, only here the ensemble cast pair really well together. Whatever legacy this film has, I certainly want more of this. It is a high fidelity high budget experience that seems like nowadays is done with CGI and feels deeply ungrounded.
That being said, everything, and I do mean everything, that surrounds these moments is deeply poor, almost painful. The script especially is one I have to grind my teeth to get through. If I could create a cut of this film where the dialogue is non-existent, I would do it. I think we would all find that the film works just as well, if not better, without dialogue. If nothing else, the voiceover provided by Sweet Pea throughout the beginning and the ending of the film is just awful, and adds absolutely nothing to the emotional payoff of the movie. A 2 out of 5 for intensity of effect.
Sucker Punch is a simple film told simply. It does not to attempt to analyze too deeply the ambiguity in a feminist film that also gets to be leery towards women in racy clothing, for example. It does not interrogate too deeply the history of confined women in the 20th century due to hazy declarations of “hysteria.” It does not seek to create strange pairings with its action sequences to psychological turmoil, like I suppose something like the video game “Alice: The Madness Returns.” Instead, the sequences are for spectacle only. While the film manages to layer visually several realities, like, say, a Charlie Kaufman film, it does not do so in a way that is deeply engaging or moving. Caught in its wrappings, the movie would have been unable to break away from its moorings anyway. The most “complexity” we could give it would likely be a technical one. Here, in these set-pieces, the choreography, the special effects, the camera work, all set and synced to flashy music, does so much to elevate the film into something to talk about. For achieving at least this, a 2 out of 5 is apt.
Had I been given the choice, I would have preferred Zack Snyder to do more movies LIKE Sucker Punch, instead of fan favorites and superhero films. As much as I hate the Sucker Punch experience, I also find it strangely magnetizing. Snyder films are usually the last films I want to see, but for some reason Sucker Punch fools me every time. I think the film in aggregate is more original than most these days. It is a film made on an 82 million dollar budget, which was the median amount for movies that year. And yet, it feels like a very premium experience to this day. There is some cheapness that I felt in some of the backdrops of the set pieces when I watched on blu ray, as likely these did not translate to high-definition quite as well. Some of the dialogue delivered in scenes felt overly-processed and sounded as if they came from a tube. The originality of the action scenes far outpaces most action in Marvel movies, which do not have the weight and heft of the fighting here. So there IS some originality by omission due to the strange world of action movies that we live in today. But the prospect of women feeling trapped in a world created by men is not surprising, even if it IS done in an articulate action-packed way. A 3 out of 5 works here.
A combined 2.75 out of 5 seems simultaneously too high and too low for the film. It clearly is one of those movies where the feeling it conveys makes scoring the film rather difficult, or tedious, or maybe pointless. I had thought that going after this film with my rubric would help to convey my taste and distaste for it, but now I have come to the conclusion that sometimes an attempt at a score can be a failure. I would actually recommend people seeing this movie once, especially young women between the ages of 12 and 20, as it presents the world that they are likely to inhabit, if a bit exaggerated. The attention of men can seem liberating and cruel, and I think this movie as a metaphor to that idea is worth experiencing.