Style over substance. Can you create a good – or even great – movie which relies more heavily on its stylish visuals and punchy score than on its narrative? Although the answer is inherently subjective, I think there is evidence to suggest that amazing audio-visual experiences can also qualify as good movies. I’m sure that we would all like our blockbusters to have the quality content of Chris Nolan’s output – the likes of The Dark Knight and Inception – but we still enjoy the other-worldly (3D) realms of Jim Cameron’s Avatar and even the recent Tron: Legacy, despite them not having as much substance behind them. Sure, the overlong Transformers 2 ended up being just painful to watch, but there are still plenty of other effects-driven movies which audiovisually bombard you to such an extent that you are not as concerned with any deficiencies in the plot. And Director Zack Snyder is really quite familiar with this kind of methodology, his two prominent comic-book adaptations – Frank Miller’s 300 and Alan Moore’s Watchmen – both offering up a hefty slice of in-your-face stylish visuals, and thundering soundtracks to boot. But where the viscerally entertaining 300 was a stripped-down story which relied almost entirely on its visual flourish to keep the momentum going (basically, anything was up for slo-mo), Watchmen actually had some substance behind it, taking us on an epic journey in a dark alternate world filled with anti-super-heroes. Snyder proved himself capable of providing us with distinctive, overwhelming style, and substance to back it up. So, with his latest effort – the critically maligned Sucker Punch – did he really lose his edge?
The story follows a group of young women who have been institutionalised at the Lennox House for the mentally insane. The latest addition is a pigtailed blonde nicknamed “Babydoll”, who was left there after she accidently shot her younger sister whilst trying to protect her from their abusive step-father. Knowing that her step-father has bribed one of the nastier orderlies to ensure that she is lobotomised when the attendant doctor arrives in just 5 days, Babydoll has precious little time to enlist the help of some of the other inmates and put together a successful escape plan. Rather unusually, however, instead of watching the narrative play out in a standard prison-break style, the majority of what we are watching is one of two layers that the character of Babydoll imagines as a result of the horrors that she has been through – and in an effort to escape them. The first fantasy has her pretend that the asylum itself is a burlesque brothel, owned by the nasty “Blue” (the orderly) and run by the psychiatrist from the asylum, who is, in the dream, actually teaching the girls how to dance for their clientele. Mirroring her wishing to escape the institution, Babydoll develops a plan to escape the brothel; a plan which involves obtaining 4 items – a map, fire, a knife and a key. And each time she and her girl gang set out to get one of these items, she closes her eyes and sinks into an even more fantastical dream level, where – in order to complete the specific mission – she has to battle orcs, or World War I soldiers – or even robots!
Whilst it may smack of Inception-lite, the story to Sucker Punch actually stems from quite an interesting – unique in its own right – premise. In fact, in its depiction of entering the fantasy world concocted up by a person in a mentally unhinged situation, it is probably closer to something like The Cell. Of course, over the course of the film, there are plenty of nods to other familiar productions – the orcs coming straight out of The Lord of the Rings movies; the robots feel like I-Robot extras; and the whole World War I segment having some very Hellboy-like vibes to it. The first dream layer – which mainly takes places in the brothel – has a very Moulin Rouge feel, with both the 60s-set ‘real world’, the girls’ dominatrix outfits and the overall tone also reminiscent of Frank Miller’s Sin City. However, unlike the painful mish-mash horror-actioner that was Doomsday, here the mix appears to work quite well, and, at least in its shorter Theatrical Edition format, certainly doesn’t outstay its welcome.
The bigger problems seem to come when viewers attempt to take the plot too seriously. And it certainly doesn’t help that writer/director Zack Snyder himself has been quoted as saying that the film has a much deeper anti-misogyny story, which is an attempt at turning the tables on ‘geek-boy fantasy depictions of women’. None of that really works for me. It seems that Snyder was, perhaps, attempting to make a production that railed against the objectification of women, by objectifying them to the extreme, and then ‘sucker-punching’ the viewer at the end, with a reasonably well-hidden twist that some will still likely be able to see coming after the end of the first act. The trouble is, as many critics have commented, the director is still – in the main – objectifying the very girls whom he seeks to empower. There’s no getting around the ridiculous schoolgirl outfits, the thigh-length boots, leather chaps or cleavage-enhancing attire – it may be extreme, practically absurd fetishisation, but it still panders to the tastes of the very audience that it is attempting to slight. Which doesn’t work.
No, for me, Sucker Punch hits the mark only on a purely visceral level; a bit of escapist fun – a dumbed-down variation on Inception, with the comic-book stylistic excess of something like Sin City. It’s action-packed, with a group of reasonably likeable, pretty sexy girls running around shooting and slashing zombies, robots, orcs and humans alike across a series of levels that look like they’ve been ripped right out of a videogame. There’s enough story background to just about hold it all together but, again, this is not as much about story, as it is about what you can visually do with, what is, a fairly simple premise. After all, the narrative is just another prison-break variation, simple in the extreme, but what Synder has rather cleverly done, is expand upon the basic plot in amazing, impossible directions. For all those who said that the dreamscapes in Inception weren’t imaginative enough, you could have no such complaints with Sucker Punch. You want a giant dragon? You got it. You want to take to the air in a robotic exoskeleton, shooting German planes out of the sky? You got it. You want to have a fight with a giant, possessed Samurai wielding a bazooka and a gatling gun? You got it. In this respect, Sucker Punch certainly delivers on its tagline promise – “You Will Be Unprepared.”
In terms of quality, beyond just its stylish visual efforts and its interesting premise, there’s little of any merit here. The cast might as well be complete newcomers – the things they are tasked with are ludicrously fantastical (and occasionally a little bit demeaning), so much so that any halfway decent actress would have probably walked away from this pretty soon after reading the title. It’s interesting to hear the number of familiar young actresses who were pursued for parts in this film – all of whom would have, no doubt, had their talents smothered under the weight of effects and blunt-force-trauma male-dominated plotting. As much as Snyder may have tried to persuade them all that there was more to this film than just scantily clad women with guns blowing up steam-driven zombie German soldiers in an alternate Second World War I setting – and thus attempted to convince them that Sucker Punch wasn’t just a geekboy wet-dream (as he insists is the true anti-misogynistic message behind it all) – the likes of Evan Rachel Wood (Thirteen, The Wrestler), Emma Stone (Superbad, Easy-A) and even Amanda Seyfried (Jennifer’s Body, and, unfortunately, Red Riding Hood) would have probably still walked a mile. Indeed, we’re left with a bunch of vaguely familiar contributors whose very lack of overt fame only adds, arguably beneficially, to the videogame / alternate reality feel to the whole production.
Emily Browning is a complete newcomer to me, although she’s been in the business since childhood. Initially quite frustrating as the lead character – mainly because she doesn’t even say anything for the first 20 minutes (longer if you’re watching the Extended Cut) – she turns out to be quite passable as the pigtailed, seemingly innocent blonde nicknamed Babydoll. Polishing up her cheeks so that she almost looks like a doll, we become intrigued by her zoned-out demeanour – particularly when we gain a glimpse as to what’s actually going on behind those pretty little eyes. You’ll also find Jena Malone (a long way from Donnie Darko) on top Tinker-Bell form as the pixie-like Rocket; ex-reality TV actress Jamie Chung (Hangover Part II) as the lollipop-sucking Amber, and High School Musical’s Vanessa Hudgens as the purposefully misnamed Blondie – although, apart from Malone, who brings a certain engaging vulnerability to the piece – they are all caricature performances, completely one-dimensional, in spite of the irony that each actress has actually been given dual roles to perform. And then there’s Abbie Cornish, the acclaimed actress from Somersault, who was last seen opposite Bradley Cooper and Bobby De Niro in Limitless – she tries her best to keep her head above water but often, as a result, feels the most out-of-place in this piece.
Support comes from Carla Cugino (who previously worked with Snyder on Watchmen, and was also in Sin City), who totally hams it up – and desperately tries to stave off the markers of age – as the inflected fraulein in both worlds, training the girls how to dance in one; and psychoanalysing them in the other; and then there’s Oscar Isaac (who a few may recall from Body of Lies or Robin Hood) as the nasty orderly / glorified pimp. We even get cameos from veteran actor Scott Glenn (who now looks like 'old' Spock from the Star Trek reboot) and from John Hamm (Mad Men, The Town), who seems utterly wasted – though his expanded part in the Extended Cut doesn’t do him justice either.
Clearly this movie is not about the distinctly limited acting (after all, where else could a regular from High School Musical fit in unnoticed?), nor the unremarkable dialogue; it’s not about the promising opening gambit that is stretched to breaking point under the weight of over-the-top effects and crazy-wild fantasy sequences – no, Sucker Punch is all about the experience. Snyder’s visual technique of over- and under-cranking the camera speed (often referred to as ramping) working at full tilt here, capturing every possible slo-mo action opportunity in all its glory. And then some. Total and utter style over substance in almost every respect. And, to a certain extent, it works. It pulls you out of your lazy armchair and goes for the jugular, throwing you headfirst into a succession of fantasy worlds, sticking around long enough to give you a taste for the unexpected, but not overstaying its welcome; then landing you back in an already-alien landscape where asylums are painted as brothels and inmates are high-class prostitutes. It may not be to everybody’s tastes – and it certainly does not empower women in any way, as the director purportedly assumed it would – but it is escapist fun nevertheless. It’s not deep, by any means, but it’s also far from the most shallow, throwaway fantasy I’ve ever come across (for example, it’s nowhere near as bad as the similarly over-styled female-led film, Ultraviolet – starring Milla Jovovich).
Those who give it a chance, who stick with it through to its marginally over-long end, and who enjoy it for what it is – at face value – should be rewarded by a couple of hours of CG-driven otherworldly mayhem, with a reasonably serious, adult plot and some properly preposterous comic-book / videogame action. And a bunch of gun-toting girls, who clearly just wanted to have a whole load of fun taking themselves far too seriously. In a strange sort of way, whilst not quite as rewarding, nor as stripped-down and streamlined, Sucker Punch is the female equivalent to Snyder’s earlier adaptation of 300. So whilst it may not appeal to the same audiences that lapped up the more cerebral Watchmen, fans of 300 who fancy a bit of girls-in-tiny-skirts-with-thigh-high-boots-and-automatic-weapons action won't be disappointed.
Theatrical Release vs. Extended Cut
Just like I did for the Salt - Extended Edition Blu-ray release, which sported 3 different versions of the film, I’ve chosen to take a look at the alternate versions of Sucker Punch in a separate section, so as not to spoil too much of the movie for those who haven’t yet seen either cut. If you want a short answer, and don’t want to read any spoilers (don’t worry, I’m not going to give all that much away anyway), then I’d actually recommend the Theatrical Release to first-time viewers. It is 17 minutes shorter but, still running at over 110 minutes in length, that may actually be something of a blessing to some. Whilst the Extended Cut offers up some additional violence, and one noteworthy new action sequence, it also brings in two completely new scenes which could easily alienate first-time viewers more than anything that might be found in the Theatrical Release.
For those who want to know exactly what was added, the Extended Cut boasts its first entirely new sequence fairly soon into the proceedings, where we get to see a montage of the girls’ performing at the burlesque brothel, set to “Love is the Drug” as sung by Carla Cugino and Oscar Isaac. Their over-the-top performance of the song is so distracting that it threatens to take you out of the film very early on – and certainly gives you the impression that this is even more of a musical than you might have already suspected (there’s already plenty of slo-mo montages set to music, so it teeters on the brink of musical territory throughout). Still, considering that the Theatrical Release has absolutely no scenes with the girls dancing (although the aforementioned montage can be glimpsed over the closing credits – a bad move considering the fate of some of the characters it involves) fans will obviously want to come back and watch the Extended Cut just for this new segment.
During the World War I fantasy bit we get more violence, although there’s still no blood (the enemies are all steam-driven zombies, in order to cater for the original PG-13 intended market, no doubt), and then the next noteworthy addition comes in the form of an entirely new action sequence when the girls land during the medieval fantasy dream segment. In the Theatrical Release it cuts straight to them, in stealth mode – complete with silenced SMGs – tactically infiltrating the castle; but in the Extended Cut they have a proper full-on shootout, complete with some crazy balletic wire-work CG slo-mo moves, and slaughter hundreds of those ‘Rings-inspired orcs, before then cracking out some swords and going medieval on their asses before then strapping on the silencers and raiding the castle. This is probably the addition that fans will get the biggest kick out of, and it arguably adds to the entertainment value of this section of the film. If there was some way of watching a cut with just this added back in, then that would be the Ultimate version.
Then, towards the end, we get a couple more additions – a brief extra execution gunshot (again trimmed to suit the rating, no doubt) – as well as an entirely new scene where Babydoll finally confronts the ‘High Roller’ whom she has been trying to avoid for the entire movie. Somewhat anticlimactic, and also a little perverse in its counter-thinking portrayal of the relationship between the two (although his seduction of her is supposed to be an allegory for what he is really doing to her in the real world, the depiction of this girl accepting her fate – and actually being happy with it – comes across as more disturbing than revealing). This scene also somewhat dilutes Snyder's intended 'sucker punch' ending, telegraphing the twist, for those who haven't guessed it, before you can get to the shock-jolt return to reality.
Overall, I’d recommend sticking with the Theatrical Release the first time around, and then lapping up the pros and cons of the Extended Cut after you’ve determined whether or not you actually enjoyed the movie. The longer version will certainly not convert anybody who has already decided that they don’t like the film, and the musical sequence might come across as a make-or-break ‘marmite’ moment for many – one which arguably has no place in the film (akin to the one that ruined the similarly maligned sci-fi ensemble Southland Tales). And for those who are tempted by the sight of an R-rated “Sexual Content, Some Violence and Brief Language” warning on the Extended Cut, rest assured, there’s nothing here that truly warrants the step up in classification. It’s soft-R at best, but, in my opinion, still very much PG-13 material other than in tone – which remains consistently dark in both versions.
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