Cast: Emily Browning, Abbie Cornish, Jena Malone, Carla Gugino. Vanessa Hudgens, Scott Glenn
Director: Zack Snyder
What, exactly, have video games done to us?
That might not be the question that Zack Snyder meant to ask with Sucker Punch, the lustful, bizarre adolescent fantasia, billed by the 300 director as “Alice in Wonderland with machine guns.” But for me, that question certainly rises to the top.
I’ll submit this early answer so that it doesn’t get buried – video games have allowed us to become the heroes of our own myths. Technology has reached the point where we no longer must long for the legendary glories of others. In doing so, they have encouraged our culture of narcissism.
Sucker Punch is shaped as a quest story, a search for five items that Baby Doll (Emily Browning) must find to set her free. Imprisoned in a mental asylum, she uses fantasies to escape her dour surroundings, first into a swanky bordello and then a video game fantasy. In doing so, she empowers herself to take over the center of the story.
This may be one of the more insane comparisons I can make. But it’s an insane movie, so here goes an insane comparison. Sucker Punch reminds me of Max Fischer and Rushmore. Hold it for a moment. They share a curtain-opening motif, like a play, that winks at their artificiality. They both center on the narcissism of teenage sociopathy (albeit Max has a friendly, familiar variety).
Each character deals with their isolation by creating imaginative spaces where they are the heroes of their own story and others are bit players. Max and Baby Doll reach the same epiphany – that there are other people in the world living their own lives, and that they are not always the star of the story.
None of that is to say that Sucker Punch approaches Rushmore in quality. It really is high-sheen absolute crap in many ways. And that linear description of a deeply buried theme doesn’t give the real sense of this weird, reckless, and sometimes fascinating vanity project.
The film has enough levels of dreams to make Inception’s Dom Cobb a little loopy on the giggle juice. In the bordello, Baby Doll and her fellow inmates dress like sluts and dance like slaves. When Baby Doll dances, she slips into the sooty video game world, where the women fight giant samurai, World War I zombie Germans, and James Cameron’s lost dragon, while searching for five objects that will set them free.
The problem is that this 16-year-old girl dreams like a 16-year-old boy. A boy whose notions of history and reality have been formed from video games and too many Bjork videos from the 1990s. The fantasies focus on girl power, machine guns, and Abbie Cornish’s chest. Somehow this young woman has managed to dream in the male gaze.
Despite its rather serious flaws, Snyder and his team really are gifted filmmakers. Aside from the head-swimming detail of his visuals, he’s such a swift technician and editor. Take the scene where the girls try to steal a knife from a cook as Baby Doll performs a cutting table dance. glides through a quick montage of six or seven shots so well-chosen that we feel we know every inch of the room.
His style is also slightly different than other CG overlords. Some directors prefer their CG to create verisimilitude. Others, particularly in Sin City knockoffs, go for high contrast, in which the characters seem alien to the surroundings. Instead, Snyder creates a stylized batter that’s smooth until you run into chocolate chips of real objects. These dreams are built with the metal of reality.
Interesting visual style isn’t enough to save it. Not with the flammable dialogue sending up the wooden performances (of the women, only Abbie Cornish has done enough good work to be disappointing). Not with the lack of human moments (something that Watchmen served to balance the violence). Not when the most human moment is a dragon checking on its dead baby (if it’s a greensreen, then it’s got to have a dragon). Snyder does more with the greenscreen than many other directors. But sometimes it feels like he’s really doing less.