Monday, June 20, 2011

Review: Sucker Punch

This review is very late to the party on Sucker Punch, though I myself was not.  I saw it the week after it opened, and again a few nights later, and I must say it’s gotten a bad rap.  People hated this movie.  It became a critical punching bag for most of a month.  Even regular supporters of director Zack Snyder and this of genre mash-up ran for cover.  The film and its director were criticized for being incompetently made, badly scripted and acted, and pretentiously stupid.  It was accused--vehemently--of being a juvenile, masturbatory, misogynistic desecration of a movie, symbolic of the worthlessness of modern popular cinema and fanboy fantasies everywhere.  Yeah, it wasn’t pretty.
Now, I’m not saying a couple of those criticisms aren’t accurate, and I’m not sure the movie’s actually good (I wouldn’t know who to recommend it to), but I kinda liked it, and I think most of those accusations are pretty overblown.  Perhaps it’s just my own impulse to contrariness, but the more criticisms I read, the more defensive and supportive I felt, and my second viewing of the film only confirmed my opinion.  So I’m going to attempt a defense of the film here and see if anybody agrees with me.
First off, I’ve never been a particular fan of Zack Snyder.  I enjoyed 300, but only because I was laughing most of the time.  I was supremely excited for Watchmen, but after enjoying it in the theater I gradually came to the conclusion that it destroyed all the book’s moral complexities in favor of extra-graphic sex and ultra-violence (though my liking for Sucker Punch has convinced me a re-viewing is in order).  I haven’t seen Dawn of the Dead or Legend of the Guardians.  So I really only went to Sucker Punch to be part of the conversation (that worked out), and I was genuinely surprised by how much I liked it.  Granted, I started off skeptical, and there were parts I thought were ridiculous, and I really hated the end credits sequence, but I came out of the theater thinking, “You know, that was actually pretty good,” and my opinion grew stronger over the next couple days.  

The story focuses on Baby Doll (Emily Browning), a young woman who is apparently 20 but looks 16, who loses her mother to illness and while attempting to protect her sister from her abusive stepfather, accidentally shoots the girl instead.  Her stepfather sends her to a mental institution and bribes the male nurse (Oscar Isaac) to have her lobotomized in a week’s time.  Unable to deal with all this, Baby Doll slips into a fantasy world, where she and the other patients/inmates are burlesque dancers/prostitutes who must plot an escape from the evil pimp (the male nurse).  They do this by distracting authority figures with Baby Doll’s erotic dancing, then sneaking around and gathering banned objects to use in their escape.  When Baby Doll dances, though, she slips into another fantasy/layer of reality, where she and the other girls are super-commandoes fighting their way through various landscapes that mash up anime, steampunk, cyberpunk, fantasy, and video game imagery--this is where most of the footage in the trailers comes from.  Unfortunately, their great escape plan goes horribly wrong, and not all the girls get out alive.
Snyder films the whole thing in his distinctive style: cool characters in mostly CGI environments, moving with lots of slow motion and set to operatic rock music.  This style has its ups and downs.  It’s hard to depict complex themes when everything is so exaggerated, and action scenes don’t really become more exciting they’re slowed down.  I certainly understand those who can’t stand it.  Nevertheless it has its charms.  It allows for the creation of ridiculously gorgeous/awesome/just-plain-ridiculous environments, with the camera lingering on details and moving in and out of the action to give us as many angles as possible.  Unlike Michael Bay (who does share a certain immaturity and attempt to make explosions really gorgeous) and other quick-cut and shaky-cam directors, Snyder generally makes his action spatially coherent and physically comprehensible.  He’ll slow things down, then speed them up, but where before that seemed like a distracting tick, here it felt to me like a familiar friend.  Literal eye-candy that doesn’t offer much suspense but sure is fun to look at.  He drapes the whole film in wall-to-wall rock music, mostly remixes of classics, notably the Eurythmics’ “Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This),” the Pixies’ “Where is My Mind?,” and Jefferson Airplane’s “White Rabbit.”  He syncs up his psychedelic imagery and video game action sequences with the songs to create pseudo-music videos which also advance plot.  There’s something about this synthesis that grabs me, and occasionally puts a big, goofy grin on my face.  It’s ridiculous, as I’ve said, but it still manages to capture a mood and a movement and plunge you into a gloriously surreal world of the imagination.  Snyder’s style is heavily influenced by Quentin Tarantino (especially Kill Bill and the way QT picks up and discards genre styles and tropes at will), as well as Baz Luhrmann, and the delirious way colors, effects, and songs can combine to create emotion in Moulin Rouge. The nearest I can come to analogizing my pleasure in the style Snyder creates here is the delight one can get from the purple prose of an old EC horror comic, or a pulp writer like Robert Howard.  The writing is over-the-top, overly descriptive and faux-poetic, but the fact that it’s not actually good poetry matters not at all--it achieves its own delight and mesmeric power through its total commitment and blindness to its own verbosity.
The actors are a mixed bag, but several of them give surprisingly good performances.  This seems to be a common quality in Snyder’s movies--a few characters extremely well-cast and gripping (off-)balanced by a few really bad, exaggerated performances that make it difficult to judge the ensemble accurately.  Here the acting honors go to Oscar Isaac as the deliciously evil Blue.  He strides dominates every scene he’s in, moving effortlessly from devilish comedy to genuinely scary anger.  Browning as Baby Doll and Abbie Cornish as Sweet Pea are also strong. Though neither lights up the screen like Isaac, they end up carrying most of the plot of the film, and they hold up well.  My favorite, though, was Jena Malone as Rocket, who almost singlehandedly imbues all the girls’ interactions with humor, emotion, and sexiness.  Her character arc is not especially large, but it is the most personal and dramatic, and I admit to feeling the emotion of her last scene pretty strongly.  She was also my favorite thing about Donnie Darko, and I admit to having a bit of a crush on her.  She and Isaac really make the film, for me.  On the other hand, Carla Gugino is horribly over-the-top as the Polish psychiatrist/madame, a weird, porny stereotype come to life.  Jamie Chung and Vanessa Hudgens don’t embarrass themselves, but they’re not given much to do, either.  And Jon Hamm shows up for one scene where he seems completely out of place--though that may have been due to time and rating cuts.  Scott Glenn is in a strange category by himself as the Wise Man, the only character who is clearly tongue-in-cheek.  I say “clearly,” though some reviewers didn’t take him that way and it took me a little while to be sure as well, but the little aphorisms of wisdom he imparts to the girls are so clearly nothing but silly cliches--and the fact that he wears eyeliner in every scene--pushes him well past the line into intentional goofiness.  I’m not entirely sure how to feel about him, since he is supposed to signal real growth in the girls, too, but I feel certain that we are supposed to laugh at him as well.
Now for all those accusations I cited above:  I do not believe the film is either deeply feminist or deeply misogynist.  The film clearly does wants to be a feminist-geek cult object; it wants to take stereotypes and comic book roles for its women and then turn them on their heads, making all men into hulking, threatening rapists, and the girls into superheroes who reject patriarchal tyranny by taking measures into their own hands--it would be a mistake to see it otherwise.  Unfortunately, it doesn’t quite make it there.  The plot sets up the themes, but they never follow through with anything like real profundity, and I readily admit that searching for deep meaning in this film is a fool’s errand.  There are morals, and there may be hidden plot complications, but deep meaning is something it doesn’t really have.  So I accept that it is a failed feminist anthem.  
The accusations of misogyny, on the other hand, are pretty wildly off the mark.  They rest on a surface reading that dismisses all the pseudo-feminism as crap and simply looks at the style and outfits of the film to find it sexist.  The truth is, the girls do dress in stylized, revealing outfits throughout the film, but the outfits aren’t used as a sexualization.  The burlesque costumes the girls wear are treated as prisons--they reflect the dinginess of the brothel around them, and act as oppressive symbols of their subjugation.  (Their little-girl names are also symbols of this male domination--but they take of hold of the names and make them their own.)  When they enter the third level of reality--the action sequences--they get rid of the burlesque costumes to bedeck themselves in leather uniforms/armor, influenced by everything from The Matrix to Batman to Sailor Moon.  Of course, one can see misogyny here, too, if one is so inclined, but I think that would be a mistake.  The uniforms are not especially practical, but they are not nearly as revealing as many outfits worn by female superheroes in today’s comic books, and they are never sexualized in these sequences--clearly, they are meant to be as “awesome”-looking as possible, the female equivalent of generations of masculine heroes whose outfits emphasized their musculature and impossible coolness.  Whether this represents a desirable style of heroism for women is another matter.  I don’t see many girls running around looking for hyper-stylized, violent female action heroes.  On the other hand, the actresses starring in the film obviously loved it.  They delighted in going to press junkets together and describing the training they went through and the great fun they had, as well as emphasizing the way the film is supposed to be liberating for girls.  And in the first (late) showing I attended, of the five people in the audience, three of them were girls.  Bottom line on Snyder’s depiction of women:  He clearly cares about these characters as people and wants us to care, too.  He never once, that I noticed, directs his camera at the girls in a truly titillating or eroticized way, except when depicting the point of view of evil male characters, and then only very briefly.  He never shows Baby Doll’s mesmerizing dance, because the dance is not important except as a plot device and showing it would be sexualizing her.  I saw more titillating objectification of female bodies in the 2-minute trailer for Fast Five before the film, and that’s a fact.
Ultimately, I can’t claim Sucker Punch as a completely successful or really “good” movie--there’s too many flaws, too many narrative inconsistencies, too much slow motion and scenes that fly wildly over-the-top.  But I think it is a genuinely enjoyable movie, one with a unique style and some really breathtaking moments, populated by several honestly compelling characters and a pretty sweet soundtrack.  It doesn’t live up to its ambitions, but it deserves a much better reception than it got, and Snyder deserves to be watched in the future.  If he can one day succeed in completely marrying his style with a tight, exciting plot, and genuine emotion and complex themes, he will be a force to be reckoned with.
Rating: 6/10 stars, objectively, but I’m leaning toward a 7/10.
This guy is the only other person I can find who makes a strong defense of the film.  He goes farther than I do, but he helped clarify my own opinion.  Other people who take the film seriously can be found here and here and here.  I don’t agree with the first link’s argument that it’s all ironic, and I don’t think I want to, but it’s intriguing nonetheless.  The second link is a really excellent article exploring the film’s imagery and symbolism (not always positively).  The third says many of the same things I said, differently.

1 comment:

  1. Excellent review! I'm with you and the few who thought this movie was enjoyable! I really liked the action scenes and enjoyed the characters as well, and I'll agree it wasn't the best movie ever, but it did have something about it that I thoroughly enjoyed. I, like you watched it in theaters when it first came out and again just watched it on PPV from my TV provider/employer DISH Network. They have a promo going on for Independence Day making this movie and four others only 99 cents till July 7th, so I thought it was a great deal and a great opportunity to watch it again. I even liked it more the second time! Check it out :)