Sucker Punch is the latest feature film from director Zack Snyder of 300 and Watchmen fame. Unlike those comic book adaptations, Snyder not only directs here, but also developed the original story and co-wrote the screenplay with the relatively unknown Steve Shibuya. This meant Snyder had extensive freedom to envisage the kind of narrative and visual style he wanted for the movie, but without the kind of strong existing material he had to work with in his earlier films. The result is something very hard to define; Sucker Punch is an entertaining movie with a spectacular visual style, but its many elements fail to truly come together in a compelling way.
The film’s narrative is simple and straightforward; a twenty-year old girl dubbed as Babydoll, played by Australia’s Emily Browning (The Uninvited), is condemned to a seedy mental institution and endeavours to escape before a scheduled lobotomy. Along the way she recruits fellow inmates Sweet Pea (played by another Aussie Abbie Cornish; Limitless) Rocket (Jena Malone; Five Star Day), Blondie (Vanessa Hudgens), and Amber (Jamie Chung; Grown Ups). The girls are under the thumb of the menacing Blue (Oscar Isaac; Robin Hood), and his ambivalent collaborator Dr. Gorski (Carla Gugino; Faster).
The premise of the escape quickly develops into something of a fable quest where a mysterious Wise Man (Scott Glenn; Magic Valley) helps the girls collect a series of items that will aid in their jailbreak. However where the story starts to get tricky is in Synder’s telling of it. The girls’ situation is draped with a couple of layers of theatrical imagination, envisioning the mental asylum as a bawdy ‘dancing girls’ bordello with Blue as the chief pimp.
Additionally, whenever the story enters the questing phase for a particular item, the film leaps into a sensationalised surrealist fantasy mish-mash. It’s in these moments that Synder gets most interesting, painting visually arresting action sequences, fusing together elements from genres that rarely coexist with wild abandon. In these scenes, the girls, armed with swords, machine guns and anime-inspired mecha, may take on steampunk zombie German soldiers, fire-breathing dragons, or giant samurai demons.
These moments are over-the-top, unabashedly crass, and frankly ridiculous, yet completely awe-inspiring nonetheless. In a strange way, these moments — scattered at intervals through the movie — are where Synder seems to relax and simply revel in the chaotic nonsense of it all. Meanwhile, the core narrative of the movie which is set back in the asylum/bordello, while entirely solid and occasionally punctuated by some superb drama, are a complete drag.
Clearly the choice was made that for the “imagination” sequences to have any context, they had to be grounded in a real-world story and dilemma. Although the links between the imaginary layers and the real world story are ,made abundantly clear, the effect of the back-and-forth between them is nevertheless jarring and increasingly begins to feel like distinctly separate elements stitched together for the sake of realism. Snyder may have benefited from simply ditching the real-world story altogether and making Sucker Punch an entirely surrealist fable with absolutely no explanation to it, and daring audiences to simply enjoy the film for the trippy blockbuster experience it is.
Instead, we’re offered a movie that, while technically well executed, often feels like several loosely related films mashed into one. Each is strong in its own way, but together the experience feels middling and wishy-washy. Sucker Punch is certainly entertaining and often even gripping, but despite its promise that “you will be unprepared” it is in many ways too conventional a film and not nearly bold enough a movie to rave about.