It is time for Action Movie Friday, where I treat an action movie like an action movie and not like a drama and stuff. All movie reviews are subjective and while I may like something, you might think it’s shit, and vice versa!
Title: Sucker Punch
MPAA Rating: PG-13 (Theatrical) R (Extended)
Genre: Action, Horror, Science Fiction, Fantasy
Starring: Emily Browning, Abbie Cornish, Jena Malone, Vanessa Hudgens, Jamie Chung, Carla Gugino, Oscar Isaac, Scott Glenn
Director: Zack Snyder
Writer: Zack Snyder, Steve Shibuya
Distributor: Warner Brothers
Budget: $82 Million
Box Office: $89 Million
Rotten Tomatoes Rating: 24%
Falsely institutionalized by her abusive stepfather, Baby Doll is determined to gain her freedom before the Doctor comes to take her freedom away. With the help of Dr. Gorski’s treatment methods that allow her to seek power in her own mind and the friendships of the other inmates, they come up with a plan to escape the asylum together. However, the orderly Blue Jones feels proprietary towards the girls as he uses them to make more money for himself. He and the men who abuse the girls aren’t about to let them get away easily.
Sucker Punch is a highly controversial film. I’ll be honest here, my rating system is pretty forgiving. While I may offer a little analysis of story and of women’s roles in media, most of my system is based upon how well an action film serves its purpose as an action film. But there are a great many layers to Sucker Punch that if you try to critique as an action film or just what it presents to you without looking any deeper, you’ll miss the entire point of the film. Movie goers either love or hate it. It had the distinction of making many viewers uncomfortable.
Me: I cry.
A good many questions arise about if Zack Snyder could have done better? And the answer is of course. When over three quarters the audience didn’t get the theatrical version and if they see the extended version they still don’t get it. There is a problem. Of the stories that Zack Snyder writes (though I’m not sure 300 counts as it was adapted from Frank Miller’s graphic novel) he has a particular way of treating women and their sexuality as power. Sucker Punch with its mainly female cast is a showcase of this. It’s an indictment of the type of power women are given within society and within media roles. This can be easily confused for misogynistic pandering instead of a satirical or harsh critique of societal views on women and women’s power. And yes, either way, it should make many people uncomfortable.
There are feminist reviews about why Sucker Punch despite being written and directed by a man makes a very powerful feminist statement. I don’t want to rehash. (Beware, those links contain spoilers.) They do have some valid commentary about how females use and used what little power they have and had and why, from the viewpoint of a trapped girl, it would be better to be in a brothel rather than in an insane asylum. Sucker Punch is the female Lone Survivor. Except, Lone Survivor got rave reviews and Sucker Punch was called extortionist and weak. How insane is that? (Pun only somewhat intended.) I agree with the feminist approach and reviews to this movie. But then again, I am one of the people who love it.
I’ve seen both the theatrical version and the extended version. I find the extended version better and easier to understand even though both do try to lay out what is going on explicitly through dialogue and voice overs. I preferred the way the symbolism is more laid out in the extended version rather than the theatrical version (that bowed its head to the MPAA for the sake of ratings.)
Unlike most of my reviews, the following review does contain spoilers. It’s not my preferred way of doing things. I’m not sure I could adequately critique the movie without them.
To me, this is the action movie version of A League of Their Own. This is a movie about female relationships put into a very surreal and glitzy form that isn’t focused on going to the mall, doing their hair and who is dating who. It is so very rare that we see females having meaningful relationships outside of female oriented children’s media (take My Little Pony for example) that it is absolutely riveting to watch. (For those interested, A League of Their Own makes me cry too.) Zack Snyder called this movie Alice in Wonderland with machine guns. I can see where he’s coming from but I’m not entirely sure if that is completely accurate.
The story ticks along at the predictable rapid pace. Yes, someone is going to not want to try to escape and insist that if things go wrong they stop. The villain suspects something and threatens the heroes. Someone is going to become afraid and tell. The one who didn’t want to do it will call it off, only to change their mind. Things go horribly wrong and people are lost until only one or two remain to try and make it out. Someone has to sacrifice themselves for the greater good so that one may go free and spread the word of what is going on inside. There is a formula and we know the formula. It isn’t framed in a way we’d expect (young girls plotting their escape from an insane asylum using the powers of their imagination and dance/sex, wtf?) and so it is still jarring when plot points that we should expect occur.
The ending is also jarring because we expect Baby Doll to get out. Zack Snyder framed her as the main character and as an audience, we expect the main character to survive and win in these types of films. Then within the film narrative itself, Zack explicitly says twice that Sweet Pea is the main character. It is Sweet Pea’s show but she is never framed that way in story. So while there is a hopeful triumph that Sweet Pea made it. There is the bitterness of Baby Doll’s heroic sacrifice. The movie deliberately takes our expectations and twists them on their head, even down to the character’s names and personalities.
Then there is the horror aspects of the movie. These young women had no power. The sole woman who is in the facility to help them in the end has no more power than they do. These young girls were mostly likely falsely accused of being insane by men, were locked away and then further maltreated by men who run the facility (which having men run a facility for women is horrifying in itself). Men are the villains of this movie and are personified in Blue.
(Personally, I think Blue was a bit too smart, but that’s just me.) Blue is a very interesting character. He is the ‘devil’ with angel eyes. He’s charming and sleazy all at once. He also becomes obsessed with the Madonna like figure of Baby Doll who he wants to debase (the Madonna/Whore syndrome) and thus becomes the victim of what he was trying to help the girls with to begin with, insanity. The irony being that Baby Doll doesn’t portray the peaceful and motherly traits of a Madonna figure. She is more like the singer, a rebellious fighter who is willing to fight for her freedom.
Together, Baby Doll and her fellow inmates take what little power they have in order to distract those in authority over them and fight for freedom even if it means sacrificing themselves. The knowledge that these girls fight and go through all this pain and in the end when they’re almost free, they still have to face the ones with all the power, men, and have another man, save them. It is horrifying on how thin of a thread that freedom rested upon.
I’m going to give this story a cookie because it took what was a normal escape story and pushed past it and added a horror element not found in most escape stories.
There were lots of unnecessary explosions in the fight sequences. Exploding Zeppelins, Rockets taking out temples, bombs and makeshift bombs plus dragons. There were plenty of things blowing up to go around. One cookie.
The settings of the fight sequences should be familiar to about any anime, science fiction and fantasy nerd. There was the anime temple sequence, the steampunk WW2 sequence, the Lord of the Rings high fantasy style sequence and the outright Asimovian science fiction sequence with the train. There was almost a fight scene to match every girl’s costume of our main five woman band. It is almost disappointing that there wasn’t a fifth sequence for either Amber or Rocket (it is unclear who didn’t actually get a setting.) Though having a fifth dream fight sequence might have almost been too much. In the first sequence, Baby Doll is on her own and is learning what she can and cannot do in her imagination. The second sequence has the entire team fighting through trenches and they have to learn to work together, which they don’t and almost fail the mission though Baby Doll again saves the day with some fast thinking. The third fight is the best and possibly the most riveting because the girls have learned to work together in the context of the story and it shows. The fight sequences are in the action style of anime or a comic book and put the young women in enough danger through sheer force of numbers and sometimes their own stupidity to make them entertaining to watch. One cookie.
As I stated above, this is a story about women in horrible situations taking power and agency in any way they can to try to gain their freedom. Men ruled their lives. Are the female characters flat? Absolutely. It takes place over the course of five days. There isn’t time to have deep character studies. They do care for each other. They help each other. And of course, they have weaknesses and flaws that cause them to almost fail over and over and over. That alone can make people uncomfortable. Each of the girls could probably have their own little paragraph.
Arguments could be made that the female psychologist should have been the mentor, but in the story she was the most ineffectual and perhaps the weakest character. I don’t know if making her the mentor of the girls would have helped. She was the easiest person to place in that role. Thus, the older male mentor became controversial. There were arguments made in the links above that the mentor who showed the way and dispensed advice should have been female.
Should the mentor have been female? In my opinion, no. In the context of the story where all the men are presented as villains. There needed to be shown that there are still males that are trustworthy, that will protect and help women. Not all men are evil. A movie about women fighting for their own agency and freedom, doesn’t have to be an indictment that all men are evil and holding them down. There are men willing to help and point the way. It’s too easy to fall into the trap that one gender is wholly good and the other gender is wholly evil. There was hope presented that men could do the right things as well. So, the mentor being male was a nice touch.
What drew me to the film and what made me cry was how the experiences of the characters resonated with what real women go through. From the opening, there is a sick helpless feeling that wells up inside of me and as the movie progresses I want to weep at how these young women retain their nobility despite being put into such an awful situation outside of their control. Older siblings trying to protect younger siblings, using each other as distractions to keep both of them from being hurt, feeling the need to confide in someone only to not be believed or to have it go horribly wrong with the exact wrong person overhears. To feel like you can never be alone and always have to be with someone in a room with an abuser. These are the things that women have to think about every day even as they walk down the street visualized in large brush strokes on the big screen. That’s why I’ll give this section a cookie.
Sucker Punch premise rests solely on its world building. The styles of clothes and technology are almost deliberately ambiguous putting the setting of this movie anywhere between the 1940s to the 1960s. The premise is based in the sad fact that in those days women didn’t have a lot of freedoms and things such as being falsely imprisoned in an insane asylum where abuse and violence against women was all too frequent was common. Despite the glitz and glitter and pretty lingerie the girls are put in the bordello sequences, the movie doesn’t shy away from this fact.
The action sequences over the top comic and anime feel allow the movie makers to get away with just about any technology and weapon. It’s not real, and is explicitly in the imagination of the girls, so they can jump over rockets, deflect bullets, use swords, axes and machine guns and have a turbo prop on one side of the airplane and a rocket on the other. It’s in their minds. Anything goes. When you’re fighting against orcs, zombie clockworks, robots and dragons, it is hard to be pulled out of the story. Plus, everything was just too awesome and really reflected the essence of all the genres. (Is something of an all around nerd.)
If I do have an issue with the movie, it is the way the lobotomy is portrayed. It is classic Hollywood amnesia where she forgets everything and that isn’t the way that type of lobotomy works in real life. The fact that the movie ends shortly after the lobotomy happens is the only reason why I’m not taking a bite from the cookie. The consequences were never explored. She’s still in a dazed state from having the operation done in the first place. I can’t critique what I can’t see. So…
The ramifications of the story are twisted and degrading and no amount of glitter and glitz and high octane action sequences can cover that up. It is the bones of the story that make people uncomfortable and are supposed to be uncomfortable and in their fear and discomfort of the truths it reveals, they are so quick to condemn it. To see women use power, any power even in horrible situations can make many viewers uncomfortable and in their discomfort are quick to condemn it by saying “I don’t like that” without examining why they are uncomfortable and afraid.
And if Zack Snyder was trying to make a controversial movie that garnered that exact reaction, then he did a bang up job of it.
But the real question is for the sake of this review? Did the movie do what it set out to do? Was it a good action film? There are surely deep flaws in this movie, despite them, in my opinion, it accomplished what few films have accomplished, an action movie focused on female characters that let them be female and had emotional resonance with actual female experiences while at the same time had kickass fights and explosions. Five Gingersnaps.