Sucker Punch (United States/Canada, 2011)

March 26, 2011
A movie review by James Berardinelli
Sucker Punch Poster

"It is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing." When Shakespeare penned those words for Act V Scene V of MacBeth, he might have emerged from a screening of Sucker Punch. This movie isn't bad in the way some incompetently made movies are bad; this is bad because there's much skill evident in a pointless endeavor. Rarely has more technical wizardry and cinematic artistry been wasted. If visuals once served the story but now it's the other way around, Sucker Punch illustrates this taken to an extreme. There really is no narrative here, and there certainly are no characters. The film is an excuse for directorial excess. It's an exercise in public masturbation for Zack Snyder, who doesn't even have the decency to strive for the R-rating that would at least allow for the exploitative, gratuitous sex, nudity, and violence that Sucker Punch desperately needs. Where's the giant blue penis when we need it?

There is promise in the opening - a nightmarish tableau set in a gothic world of desaturated color. A triple tragedy befalls the young woman who will become known only as Baby Doll (Emily Browning): her mother dies, her sister is murdered by her guardian, and Baby Doll, accused of the murder, is consigned to an asylum. There, she faces a grim future with the possibility of a lobotomy in five days - unless she can escape. At this point, the movie shifts into a souped-up Technicolor representation of Baby Doll's situation. This is how her mind copes with being in the asylum. No longer a prisoner in a madhouse, she is a dancer in a brothel/club where runaways are held captive and forced to perform for wealthy clients. Baby Doll plans her escape with the aid of four other dancer-prostitutes: Sweet Pea (Abbie Cornish), Rocket (Jena Malone), Blondie (Vanessa Hudgens), and Amber (Jamie Chung). They are lorded over by club owner Blue (Oscar Isaac) and his choreographer, Vera Gorski (Carla Gugino), while awaiting for the arrival of the High Roller (Jon Hamm), who is actually the lobotomist.

There is a third layer of fantasy to all of this. In order to escape, Baby Doll generates a list of four items that must be acquired. As each of these tasks is performed, we are catapulted into bizarre video game-inspired scenarios in which a goal must be achieved. In one such episode, Baby Doll duels three giant mechanical beings. Another contains World War II flavors. A third s inspired by Peter Jackson's The Lord of the Rings, with orcs and dragons. A fourth involves a speeding train with a bomb on board destined for a city. All are represented using stunning CGI imagery; as pieces of pop visual art, they are arresting, but their eye-popping qualities serve not to obfuscate the paucity of the material but to emphasize it. The characters aren't merely poorly developed; they are undeveloped. They are cartoons garbed in fetishistic attire whose exploits are dull. The action, despite being posed as fast and furious, is devoid of purpose. There's no sense of suspense. Even when one of the heroines is in danger, there's no emotional response. We don't care about these people. Not only are they not real, but they're buried two levels deep in fantasy and nightmares. It's as if Snyder saw Inception while drunk or high and immediately sat down to write Sucker Punch.

As if all that wasn't bad enough, the ending is fundamentally unsatisfying. The actions of the prologue - the only segment of Sucker Punch in which we care about what's happening and the wrongs being done to an individual - are left unresolved. The chief miscreant goes unpunished. The movie ends on a flat note, shifting its focus to a secondary character as if the conclusion to her story has meaning. It doesn't.

The actresses were apparently chosen more for their physical attributes than for their thespian talents or box office appeal. They do what they were paid to do: look hot, show some degree of athleticism (heavily enhanced by CGI), and be able to deliver minimal dialogue without stumbling over their lines. One assumes most of their work was done in front of blue/green screens since there's probably not one unenhanced background in the entire film. The actresses are continually upstaged by Snyder's visual orgy, but that's by intention. They're no more important to this kaleidoscope than the biplane whirling in the sky.

The aesthetic evidenced here is much the same as the one employed by Snyder in 300, but there's a vast gulf in the quality of the source material. 300, unlike the quote used to begin this review, isn't Shakespeare, but it's solidly entertaining. There's enough substance to make Snyder's vision an enhancement, not a detriment. That's not the case here. The loud, pulsing hard rock score is more often grating than energizing; it calls attention to itself too forcefully, contesting with the visuals for what can be more disruptive.

I walked out of this movie in a state of depression. Depressed that so much technical bravura could be thrown away. Depressed that someone mistook this empty, nihilistic sketch for a substantive and meaningful project. Depressed that I had been bamboozled into paying $10 to be subjected to it. At least, however, I understood the meaning of the title. I had been sucker punched.

Sucker Punch (United States/Canada, 2011)

Run Time: 1:49
U.S. Release Date: 2011-03-25
MPAA Rating: "PG-13" (Violence, Profanity,Sexual Content)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1