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Only read this review if you have already seen the film or don't mind having the entire thing ruined for you. I have decided to express my interpretations of elements found within the film. You might even consider this a combination of a review and a deeper analysis.
"Nothing can bring you peace but yourself." - Ralph Waldo Emerson
If I were a coward I would simply avoid discussing my thoughts on Zack Snyder's latest film effort Sucker Punch. That would certainly be the easiest thing to do. I didn't even attend a critics screening of the film. Like many young men though, when I saw the trailers appear for the film a number of things caught my eye immediately. First and foremost was the cast of hot scantily clad young women with cool sounding names like Baby Doll, Sweet Pea, Rocket, Amber, and Blondie. The next thing noticed was that it seemed to blend fantasy with a lot of ridiculously over the top action that involved zombie Nazis, fire-breathing dragons, robot samurai, and other entirely bizarre and irrational things that would surely only come out of the imagination of a weirdo who has a strong affection for anime, video games, and everything else considered genuinely bizarre: this was not the kind of thing I expected to see for a big-budget spectacle showpiece. The end result was that Sucker Punch ultimately looked to me like something that would only appeal to young men looking for thrills or pop-culture junkies. It seemed like it would have plenty of pretty images and little substance whatsoever. What could possibly be worthwhile about the film beyond some mere thrills?
Sucker Punch begins with what essentially adds up to being a music video stylized opening that aims to bring audiences into the start of the story. Prepare to see a lot of this throughout the entire experience. I actually embraced it because it's in part the kind of thing I always felt Snyder should be doing: making music videos or commercials. By placing an emphasis on the music and striking imagery I felt allowed to have a visceral experience that actually grabbed on to me and wouldn't let me go. We discover early on that the girl we would soon know as Baby Doll (Emily Browning) was being sent to a mental institution by her stepfather. It's no fault of her own mental health - she witnesses the murder of her younger sister who I presumed was also raped beforehand. The stepfather doesn't stop there as he tries to rape and murder them both, and when Baby Doll fights back he somehow arranges it so that they believe the murder of her sister was why she was being committed into the mental institution in the first place.
Upon entering the mental institution Baby Doll enters a fantasy-world she creates where the storyline of Sucker Punch allows her to enter a dream within another dream state of mind (and this really made me wonder if this had anything to do with why Christopher Nolan picked Snyder for the Superman reboot). She visualizes the mental intuition as actually being a dance hall - but the truth of the fantasy is that the director of the asylum, Blue (Oscar Isaac), is really trying to prostitute the girls out to clients in his role as the owner of the dance hall. The doctor of the mental institution, Dr. Vera Gorski (Carla Gugino), is now seen as the dance instructor and every time one of the characters 'dances' they are actually entering a deeper fantasy world where all of the crazy video-game/anime like qualities truly step in to play (such as the dragons and robots - oh my!). The dancing in the film is never visualized in the way most men probably want or expect - there isn't a lot of 'sexy moves' on display in these moments and to my disappointment I have heard some complaints about this as a detractor. The dances in this movie are not ordinary dances at all but are in fact moments when Baby Doll enters her deeper fantasy state.
Baby Doll has met the other girls Rocket (Jena Malone), Amber (Jamie Chung), Sweet Pea (Abbie Cornish), and Blondie (Vanessa Hudgens). Eventually, the girls team up in each of these sequences. During the first 'deep dream' sequence Baby Doll encounters a seemingly wise old man (Scott Glenn) while alone. He informs her that in order to become free she must collect five items: a map, knife, fire, key, and another item that she must discover on her own. He also gives her a handgun and sword that can be used while inside her dream world. Over the course of the story, Baby Doll convinces the other girls that following this plan of action is the only way for them to escape. Some of the girls are on board with the idea while others (mainly Sweet Pea) seem against it. Let me pause for a moment to say that I found it odd that even in a fantasy film such as this, no one seemed to really question the items needed for the plan to actually work.
I realized at some point that there began to be a correlation between the first layer of the fantasy world and the second one. Actions taking place within the dream-world fantasy affected the other. Characters died unexpectedly and the result was their death and removal from both of the fantasy plot-lines taking place. Towards the end of the film the items gathered are used for the last surviving girls to escape and they are used in the film (which brought some resolution to my befuddlement). In concluding the story, Baby Doll realizes that the fifth thing needed for her to escape was simply her, and then she helps one of the other girls to find freedom while she stays behind. Upon entering into the reality of the situation - in the mental hospital - we find that Baby Doll is about to have a lobotomy. Dr. Gorski enters the room and talks to the man performing the lobotomy (Jon Hamm). She questions why such a thing is happening, and soon realizes that a forgery was done of her signature for someone to make the lobotomy occur. Yet it was already far too late as the operation had just been completed.
Baby Doll is led away by some guards to a room where Blue awaits her. He tells her that he can now do anything with her that he wants to do. The guards seem reluctant; saying something about being sick of letting him do what he wants to these girls. Dr. Gorski breaks into the room and stops whatever was about to happen. In a scene that appears as an epilogue thereafter, we see the lone girl who escaped get onto a bus with the same old man from Baby Dolls dream world as the driver. Is it a happy ending?
No, it really isn't a happy ending. The audience just got sucker punched. The conversation held between Dr. Gorski and the man performing the lobotomy revealed that Baby Doll had actually done some of the things the audience witnessed in the fantasy world she created. In other words, the film blends reality and fantasy in a way that makes it hard to state what moments were real and what moments weren't. Some will call this a cop out. I actually disagree for once. It had my own imagination going rather wild.
Part of my interpretation of this ending was that there were other girls in the mental institution Baby Doll came to know -- real girls with normal names that we never learn. The fantasy aspect of Baby Doll's imagination where the dance hall was used for prostitution was her only way to try and cope with the fact that Blue was raping and eventually killing these girls within this mental institution, in which the falsehood of their imprisonment was confining their minds from being freely expressed and believed. Instead of simply accepting the reality of the mental institution she wanted to envision a place in which finding a way to escape seemed like a real possibility. She wanted to imagine a way out for all of them so they could escape the hell of their reality. In the end, she didn't save anyone at all. The lone character that escapes represents another aspect of Baby Doll's own personality. All of the girls in her fantasy realm are the result of her multi-layered personality and the encounters she had with real girls living within the institution. Think about that for a moment. The only way in which Baby Doll can ever become "free" in the end is by creating an elaborate fantasy in which she and the other victimized girls can stand up for themselves and fight against the oppressive nature of the abusive and downright manipulative men who are working at the mental institution.The old sage-like character she meets in her dream state who offers her advice represents encouraging words that she herself hears from her own imagination and it arrives to her (perhaps) in an image of her real father. We never learn anything about her real parents. I am honestly suggesting that the character played by Scott Glenn could represent her biological dad. The final scene - in which the old man helps take one of the other girls to freedom represents her own desire to have helped save someone. Who did she want to save most of all: perhaps even more so than the girls she meets in the institution? Baby Doll wanted to help save her biological sister who was raped and murdered by their stepdad -- the same man that probably paid Blue to forge Dr. Gorski's signature for the lobotomy. Baby Doll may have wondered what it would have been like it her father had been there to help her to save her sister from such a fate too.
The last remaining girl was just another part of her elaborate fantasy. None of the girls escaped from the abuse, rape, and perhaps the murder they faced under the hands of the mental hospitals director Blue. The reason Baby Doll ultimately escapes the same fate is because Dr. Gorski burst into the room where Blue was about to commit the crime again. They were all victims of a cruel world. In the end all she had was the freedom to use her imagination to try and cope with the bad things going on around her and it was her way of finding peace. In the end, she has the lobotomy - and who knows where her mind will be in the future. Much like an audience member going to the movies to seek escapism so was this tragic character. That was the only thing that could bring her any peace - the sheer power of the freedom found in using an imagination. The ending was incredibly dark and it is not a happy conclusion to the events that occur in the slightest.
I would like to take a moment to explain my feelings regarding Snyder as a film-maker. I've never really been one to understand his appeal. I disliked his Dawn of the Dead remake because it generally seemed to emphasis action sequences and standard horror film clichés rather than embrace or try to go beyond the political and character-driven nature of Romero's horror classic. With his gigantic blockbuster that followed (I am of course speaking of 300) I was also let down by what it is I discovered: an exercise that felt vapid and unnecessarily action-oriented when Frank Miller's work could have been handled better under a different directorial eye. I could appreciate the visual merits of the work, but even then I was reminded of how Sin City seemed to be a precursor to Snyder's visual output to some large degree. In my eyes, it wasn't the wholly original or unbelievably thrilling film that so many critics seemed to enjoy and embrace. It was just an average film with impressive visuals that helped to hide the lack of a worthy story or semi-interesting characters. Comic fans were then treated to yet another adaptation of a much-beloved favorite with the arrival of Watchmen. I didn't even bother to see this adaptation until it arrived in my mailbox from Netflix and I proceeded to watch the director's cut with more trepidation. Visually, it once again showed signs of being made by someone who knew how to capture striking imagery and yet I just couldn't get behind the film. I was starting to loathe the style of Snyder. He didn't seem as though he cared at all about character development or good acting. The tone of Watchmen felt entirely wrong to me and I just wasn't able to embrace his efforts with that adaptation either. It simply never managed to click with me the way I wanted it to. I didn't bother to see his "owl" movie Legend of the Guardians as I had lost all interest in the film-maker and wanted to see him go away and stop making silly action films.
I quietly debated with myself over whether or not I should even give this film a chance when I was trying to decide if I should go see it. In the end, I chose to see Sucker Punch as it seemed as though it would at least be something I could see with a friend (and that is exactly what I did). I went into seeing this with very little expectations other than to find the typical slow-motion extremity of Snyder and a lot of good looking women. That was about my entire level of expectation. Imagine my surprise to find something a bit more potent than that. Sucker Punch may not be a work of genius or even a particularly solid movie from beginning to end but one thing I certainly would not accuse it of is being uninteresting or unwilling to attempt things that breach the normal expectations of a high-profile studio production. This took me entirely off guard. I felt like I was watching a large budget extravaganza that actually ignores every rule.
There were a lot of elements to this film that I found highly effective. I l especially loved the lush, darker, and heavily stylized cinematography by Larry Fong .The soundtrack itself is worth some praise with Emily Browning performing covers of Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This) and Asleep that compliment the tone of the film. I am also partial to Emiliana Torrini (one of my favorite musicians) and I loved hearing White Rabbit in the film. Perhaps most noteworthy of all was discovering the fact Snyder finally made a movie with decent performances from his actors overall. Emily Browning was completely right for the role of Baby Doll and, truthfully, I was engaged by the entire cast. Jena Malone steals the spotlight repeatedly with her role as Rocket, and I found myself really growing to care about that character despite limited time spent on character development for the supporting cast. The costume designs created by Michael Wilkinson (who also did the costumes for Tron: Legacy) were also just about everything any straight guy could possibly hope for with a film like this. The visual and special effects are also contributing factors to the high enjoyment factor I enjoyed from the end product. This is a great looking film.
Even with all of this writing so far, I haven't really said enough about the action in the film. It's the main reason a lot of people want to see this. It certainly delivers. You will find a lot of stunning moments of CGI mastery and ass-kicking awesomeness. Even if you dislike the story the visuals alone are notable, but of course I wouldn't have been so happy with them if I hadn't found them worthwhile within the context of the entire production. I was in awe of the intense battles found throughout the film and there is one sequence in particular that takes place on a train that really delivered the goods. If you want action Sucker Punch delivers it in spades.
Having now seen the theatrical presentation of the film (18 minutes were cut out to get the film both a PG-13 rating and to remove musical numbers) I can admit that perhaps I wasn't completely right about what to expect. If Zack Snyder aimed for a puzzling film with perhaps no definitive answers but enough power to create speculation through the imaginations of others (i.e. the audience) with entitling the film Sucker Punch then he succeeded. However, it really won't have the same effect on everyone. I expect there to be a lot of debate over the merits or supposed worthlessness of this daring work.
This is a post-modern mash up of countless genres and films from the past. Snyder draws noticeable influence from Alice in Wonderland, The Wizard of Oz, Inception, The Matrix, and even Sailor Moon. While I won't deny that the film is masturbatory, self-indulgent, and fetishistic it is also a lot more personal as a film than I think most viewers are willing to admit. Despite the enormous budget it's strangely the work of someone trying to do something that truly is "different", and in the corporate Hollywood system that is something you don't get to see every weekend.
I don't know if I'm right about my interpretations of the film. I don't know if anyone will agree with me. All I truly know is that by the time the credits finished rolling I felt that for the first time a Zack Snyder film hadn't completely sucker-punched me (the lame pun is intended) and that there was something about the film that seemed to demonstrated a more original voice - despite the clear and unmistakable fact that this was a film clearly created from someone who was still inspired by countless elements of pop culture. At the very least, I wanted to express my belief that Snyder has finally employed his visual style in an entirely worthwhile way for a film that wasn't a remake or an adaptation as he has moved in a new and exciting direction. He took bold risks and some of these elements paid off in the end for this particular viewer. How it will play out for other viewers is another story altogether.
Sucker Punch is a lot of things but what I least expected from it was a story that was willing to take some chances -- real risks that could jeopardize audience reactions and polarize people's opinions on something that seemed determined to also be appealing to as wide an audience as possible.
In my own way, I was impressed by that most of all.
Neil Lumbard is a lifelong fan of cinema. He aspires to make movies and has written two screenplays on spec. He loves writing, and currently does in Texas.