By now, I hope you all know that I don’t believe in guilty pleasures. Some people take movies seriously enough that they believe enjoying a movie that might be “bad” to others should cause one to feel guilt. To me, those people are missing out on a lot of inventive movies that cinema has to offer. Movies like Sucker Punch.
Zack Snyder’s fantasy film, which is a weird mix of burlesque and steampunk fashions blended with a ton of kung fu and sci-fi action, has been ripped apart by critics and viewers who – ironically – must have been unprepared for seeing a pulpy fantasy. Criticisms of the film’s lack of deep characters, video game feel, and teenage boy sex-appeal have been the standard response from critics who would like to put their standards onto the film. But it’s clear throughout the film that Snyder has no interest in those standards, which makes these complaints as valid as those of an action junkie who laments The Merchant of Venice‘s lack of explosions.
Taken for what it actually is – a dream-world music video that consists of the imaginings of abused young women – Sucker Punch completely captivated me. I can see where some would pause when looking at the film’s heavy handed messages about abuse and empowerment and assume there’s a lot more ambition behind Snyder’s film, especially when considering it alongside his adaptation of Alan Moore’s preachy graphic novelWatchmen. But Sucker Punch is clearly not Watchmen, and the script – by Snyder & Steve Shibuya – is one that Snyder openly admits is designed because he wanted showcase action sequences that “aren’t limited by the physical realities that normal people are limited by”.
Following that script, the ridiculous story follows Baby Doll (Emily Browning) who is somehow accused of her sister’s murder and placed in an asylum. Once there, she meets Rocket (Jena Malone), Sweet Pea (Abbie Cornish), Blondie (Vanessa Hudgens), and Amber (Jamie Chung), who exist as pawns in her attempt to escape before being lobotomized. Somewhere along the line, she invents a couple of alternate worlds inside her head, one in which the girls are out of the asylum and working in a brothel, and one in which the girls can accomplish pretty much anything a wise man (Scott Glenn, who has a lot of fun with fortune cookie-style dialogue) tells them to do. Their quests include giant robo ninjas, dragons, nazis, and even a train heist (with more robots), which are necessary to acquire the items needed to stage their escape.
You can probably see that the plot behind Sucker Punch does the film no favors with the critical community, and I can certainly admit that it had me scratching my head the two or three times I stopped to consider it. But trying to make sense of it is like trying to make sense of a nightmare – you shouldn’t do it. When taken at a purely visceral level, Sucker Punch is pretty fantastic. Snyder’s effects scenes feature a lot of detail and well-drawn villains – even if they are a bit repetitive. (Which does make them kind of like video games,and we all know how certain famous critics are holding on to their archaic belief that video games can not be art. If you share this mindset, this movie isn’t for you.) Snyder compliments each battle with a unique musical selection, and his ability to synchronize sound and action here is on par with his fantastic work on Watchmen. The soundtrack probably takes the film up a level here, as there are times when the film feels a lot more likeMoulin Rouge than The Matrix.
I can honestly say that my affection for Sucker Punch is not just a surface level thing; I didn’t find myself enjoying it because there were scantily clad women and explosions. There’s something uplifting about the film, something that speaks to me on a psychological level. I’m not talking about the plot – though it does have some fun bits based on its “anything is possible” philosophy – I’m saying that I love the idea of Sucker Punch. It’s just an action fantasy that does what it wants to do how it wants to do it. I don’t think people knew what was coming, and I don’t blame them. It reminds me of Big Trouble in Little China, which also blended genres and divided theatrical audiences. (There’s also a parallel regarding the lead/side characters, but to share it would spoil one of the few plot points in Sucker Punch.) It’s a movie that is not based on our reality, and shouldn’t be judged as such.
It’s rare that I find myself recommending a movie based entirely on its style over its substance – especially when it’s such a commercial style – but I think what Snyder tried to pull off through Sucker Punch was daring and brave. Many may not agree, but I think that this film will find its audience when the dust settles on the negative reviews and the reactions from unsuspecting opening weekend victims. It’s a puff piece that doesn’t make sense, but hey…neither did Inception. Maybe I’m the sucker – and I’m sure there are plenty of folks out there who will tell me that movies like this one simply can’t be good – but I’m buying what Sucker Punch is selling at face value.