Despite visually-striking action sequences, Sucker Punch is a soulless film - and an excuse for Snyder to showcase a series of vivid fantasy worlds.
For many moviegoers, Zack Snyder seemingly exploded onto the scene with his visually striking adaptation of Frank Miller’s 300 – with Snyder both penning the screenplay and directing the film. The combination of Miller’s imagination and what we now know as Snyder’s trademark slow-motion/action choreography, resulted in an exciting and brutal film that paved the way for the director to tackle other high-profile existing properties, including Watchmen and the upcoming Superman: Man of Steel.
Sucker Punch, however, is entirely Snyder’s invention – earning the director his first original story credit. With Superman reboot fervor (and fear) at an all time high, not to mention the response to Snyder’s middle-of-the-road Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga'Hoole, many film fans are looking to Sucker Punch as a barometer for whether or not Snyder is still on his game – and subsequently, whether he’s going to deliver a respectable Man of Steel film.
Does Snyder’s latest effort offer an edge-of-your-seat visual spectacle with an engaging story? Or is the film just a confused mish-mash of fantasy set pieces retro-fitted with a convoluted narrative?
Unfortunately, despite a few visually-striking action sequences, Sucker Punch is a soulless film which comes across as little more than an excuse for Snyder to showcase a series of vivid fantasy worlds in rapid succession.
If you’re unfamiliar with the basic Sucker Punch premise, here’s the official synopsis:
“Sucker Punch” is an epic action fantasy that takes us into the vivid imagination of a young girl whose dream world provides the ultimate escape from her darker reality. Unrestrained by the boundaries of time and place, she is free to go where her mind takes her, and her incredible adventures blur the lines between what’s real and what is imaginary.
Despite the filmmaker’s attempt at an overarching story of self-empowerment - as well as imaginative dream-worlds - Sucker Punch is one of the most formulaic films to hit the screen in recent memory. The basic structure is spelled out in the most recent trailer: In order to be free of her captors, Babydoll (Emily Browning) must find five (symbolic) items – the majority of which are tied to one of the film’s fantasy set-pieces. Similarly, the premise/vehicle through which Babydoll repeatedly enters the dream world isn’t nearly as artistic as Snyder must have thought – and, with each successive performance, becomes increasingly awkward.
The film’s reliance on disassociation from reality – while fertile ground for over-the-top action scenes – strips most of the Sucker Punch characters from having anything but cliché and one-dimensional personalities. Two quick lines in the film’s synopsis layout about as much as the audience will get, in terms of character, from the film’s warriors:
She has been locked away against her will, but Babydoll has not lost her will to survive. Determined to fight for her freedom, she urges four other young girls - the outspoken Rocket (Jena Malone), the street-smart Blondie (Vanessa Hudgens), the fiercely loyal Amber (Jamie Chung) and the reluctant Sweet Pea (Abbie Cornish) - to band together and try to escape their terrible fate at the hands of their captors, Blue (Oscar Isaac), Madam Gorski (Carla Gugino) and the High Roller (Jon Hamm).
All of the performances are extremely one-note – with only Oscar Isaac (Robin Hood), as the film’s main antagonist, successfully bringing anything more than surface-level emotion to the production. In the end, the film seems to violate the most basic storytelling principle – show, don’t tell. Throughout the movie, the audience is told, through dialogue, that each subsequent victory results in some significant impact on each character’s sense of self-worth – but the story never takes advantage of the promised momentum. As a result, even in the closing moments of Sucker Punch, it’s unclear whether anyone has actually been empowered – in spite of voice-over narration that preaches otherwise.
Similarly, when the fantasy elements of the film are later reconciled against the real-world events (which is an on-the-nose exposition dump), it’s hard to feel as though Babydoll’s imagination didn’t just protect her from the horrors of the surrounding environment – they also protected Snyder from having to truly grapple with the emotions and implications of the more important real-world story as well as the subsequent fallout. If Snyder had spent as much time developing a satisfying story arc for the real-world events as he did imagining backstories for the fantasy worlds, Sucker Punch might have actually succeeded in providing a competent narrative journey.
It shouldn’t come as a surprise then, in a film where visuals take precedent over character development and engaging story progression, that the Sucker Punch action scenes are fast-paced, exciting, and epic in scale. However, the film’s five-item formula wears on the proceedings, making it hard to appreciate each successive entry – especially considering the first two sequences are far superior to the latter ones. The final set-piece is especially lackluster – since it’s much more confined than the prior entries (not to mention it comes across as a mash-up between The Matrix Reloaded and Dru Hill’s music video for “You are Everything [Remix]”).
Given the film’s reliance on music (both in terms of story and execution), it’s a relief that the Sucker Punch soundtrack is one of the better aspects of the production – especially considering the recordings feature vocals from star Emily Browning. Each action set-piece is framed within a single song – modernized covers ranging from Bjork to The Beatles – and while the on-screen execution can be stiff, there’s no doubt that the music is successful in pumping more adrenaline into the already intense action set-pieces. The opening prologue, set to a remix of Eurythmics’ “Sweet Dreams (Are Made Of This)” is especially persuasive. In general, the inclusion of Browning’s vocals in a number of the songs add an additional, and especially intriguing, layer to the fantasy versus reality conflict in the film. If only the rest of filmmaking choices in Sucker Punch were as playful and interesting...
In an increasingly tech-savvy world, it’s hard to ignore the feeling that a feature film may not have been the best medium for the Sucker Punch concept. Had Snyder presented a less-expensive version of the story in the form of a high-profile short-film/web-series event, the overarching narrative might be easier to appreciate – and would have allowed the director to add more room for character development as well as the fantasy worlds he spent so much time developing. As it is, the film is at odds with itself – with each fantasy setting competing against the others while, altogether, overshadowing the larger themes and story beats.
There’s no doubt that a lot of audience members will walk out of Sucker Punch in awe of the fight scenes and, as a result, might enjoy the film. That said, given the movie’s emphasis on self-empowerment (as presented through dialogue and voice-over), it’s obvious that Snyder was aiming for more than just an action-packed popcorn flick – making it hard to ignore that, much like Babydoll, the filmmaker may have temporarily lost his footing in reality.
If you’re still on the fence about Sucker Punch, check out the trailer below:
Still have questions about the film or just want to talk about it without worrying about spoiling it for others? Please head on over to our Sucker Punch Spoilers Discussion for our full analysis of the ending and other story details.
If you want to hear the ladies of the film discussing their love of gunpowder and swordplay, head over to our Sucker Punch cast interview.