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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.
Snyder's visual stew is undoubtedly specific and unique, but also remarkably ugly. Saving Private Ryan introduced the world to dull, nearly monochromatic color timing, and Snyder dives right in, pushing the visual monotony even farther than his own 300. The result is not only bad, but it makes the movie look artificial. 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 brown cinematography he uses to separate the layers, and the non-stop inclusion of CG sets and villains. Films often get criticism for looking "like a video game", but entire sequences of Sucker Punch actually look like they were rendered on a PS3, lacking a single identifiable tangible element. Snyder's use of music -- including terrible covers rather than original songs -- essentially amounts to several music videos, stuffed inside a film that already feels disconnected and episodic thanks to the levels (completely lacking the effectiveness of Snyder's two great credit sequences set to music). On top of this, he 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 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 people, yet does far more with way less.
That said, I could have probably forced myself to look past this if Sucker Punch had a good story, or at least, a good story Snyder was able to convey. 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 been re-written with the subtle touch of...well, a Zack Snyder 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. 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 lack of distinct personality. Snyder has created a real rarity in a women-led action film, but poor character development, teen-boy fantasy visuals, and, worst of all, confused message (especially in terms of how Glenn's character is involved in relation to the film's gender politics) ruins the simple pleasure of watching a group of women work together, which only remains in extremely fleeting moments.
Occasionally, Jena Malone as Rocket, 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. At every turn, 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 (intentionally) weasels around anything that might leave a bad taste in the audience's mouth, while also (unintentionally) undermining its own message of self-reliance. At least the title is accurate: Sucker Punch is about as fun, subtle, and pleasing as an unexpected fist to the gut.
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