Some would draw a line on the Hollywood battlefield between "original" and "unoriginal", but it turns out there's an even bigger threat to modern movies than a lack of inspiration: ideas in service of horrendous filmmaking. Sucker Punch, the latest film by director Zack Snyder (Dawn of the Dead, 300, and Watchmen) is a triple-layered fantasy with an intriguing structure, yet it's also one of the loudest, ugliest, and most frustrating excuses for action spectacle to hit the screen in years. For every idea in his screenplay (and there are only a select few), Snyder stacks on ten thousand units of oppressive, dreadful style, grandly indulging in every steampunk/anime/video game-inspired idea that pops into his head, creating an ADD-plagued, artless pastiche that borders on unwatchability.
The levels break down as follows: on the first level, we learn that a young girl (Emily Browning) is wrongfully sent to a mental institution for firing a gun at her father after he murders her younger sister. As the crooked guard Blue (Oscar Isaac) collects her father's payoff and leads her into the cells for a five-day stay with a sentence of lobotomy looming at the end, she retreats into a fantastical alternate reality where she's named Baby Doll, a sexy burlesque dancer at a high-priced club. She and the other dancers (paralleling the inmates on level one) need to steal five items in order to escape the club before the impending arrival of "the high roller" (the lobotomy). Their only opportunity to do so lies in Baby Doll's secret skill at seducing her audience: whenever she gets on stage, she goes another level deeper into a world where she and her friends blast apart dragons, living statues, and robots with the help of a mysterious old man (Scott Glenn), while her audience remains hypnotized until she returns.
All of Snyder's directorial decisions are exhausting. Just like pretty much every filmmaker in the world since Saving Private Ryan, he dives headlong into the mind-numbingly boring world of excessive color timing. I don't know how many sets were made for the movie, but all of them look like Sky Captain-style digital backlot thanks to the aggressively ugly color-drained and tinted cinematography he uses to separate the layers, and the non-stop inclusion of CG sets and villains. It's popular to criticize films for looking "like a video game", but entire sequences of Sucker Punch truly and genuinely appear to have been rendered on a PS3, lacking a single identifiable tangible element. Snyder's use of music -- including terrible covers rather than the original, popular songs -- amounts to several music videos, stuffed inside a film that already feels disconnected and episodic thanks to the levels (a real shame, since Snyder has set two truly wonderful opening credit sequences to music). On top of all these choices, he finally heaps his usual obsession with slow motion, to the point where running the two hour film at full speed would likely make the movie about 70 minutes long. The low (high?) point: an extended, single-shot explosion of impossibly frenetic slow-motion bullet-time nonsense that will make viewers yearn for, say, Paul Greengrass' steady hand. The fight scene from Oldboy jumps to mind as a scene that takes place in the same amount of space, with the same amount of attackers, yet does far more with 500% less.
Most of this wouldn't have mattered if Sucker Punch had a good story, or at least, a good story the audience could fully access. The idea that Baby Doll's world exists on three layers has potential, but her journey of self-discovery has been stolen from other movies, had the nuance sanded off, and ultimately been re-written to accomodate the lowest common denominator, spelling out and telegraphing each plot development with the subtlety of...well, everything else in the movie. Snyder's clunky dialogue (mostly heaped on poor Scott Glenn, who looks slightly confused and seems to have signed on in hopes the film would do for him what Kill Bill did for David Carradine) tries its hardest to be mysterious and fails miserably. Admittedly, it sounds like Snyder had trouble getting his film past the MPAA for their usual backwards reasoning, and as a result, lost some integral plot pieces, but ratings rejiggering doesn't account for the terrible exposition the characters spout, or their overwhelming lack of personality. There's also the fact that Snyder has created a real rarity in a women-led action film, but the skimpy costumes, poor character development, and, worst of all, confused message (especially in terms of Glenn's character, and how the ending fits into the film's gender politics) ruin the simple pleasure of watching the team function like an elite military unit, which only remains in extremely fleeting moments.
Along with the few bits of "team action", there's also the occasional moment where the performances, particularly Jena Malone as Rocket and Abbie Cornish as Sweet Pea, and Isaac as Blue, are engaging enough to make the film tolerable, but these moments are akin to finding drops of water in the middle of the desert. In keeping with the concept, Snyder values more style over style over substance, smothering his ideas beneath a sea of artificial imagery. The film builds to the kind of dark, uncompromising ending that holds the audience's hand and pats them on the back, while surreptitiously weaseling around anything that might leave a bad taste in the audience's mouth. At least the title is accurate: Sucker Punch is about as fun, beautiful, subtle, and inventive as an unexpected fist to the gut.
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