Monday, April 11, 2011

Sucker Punch: I liked it better than you did.

The other day I was talking about movie reviews and how hard it would be to add something new to the thousands of reviews that get written by professionals and amateurs alike. But sometimes you just want to write about a movie regardless of anything new that might be added. After seeing Sucker Punch, director Zach Snyder's follow-up to “The Watchmen” and “The Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga’Hoole,” I felt like I had something to say. I've seen a few reviews that pan the film as all flash and no substance but I didn't see it that way. In this film I saw Snyder using an overload of fragmented pop-culture images and references to portray multiple layers of mental disintegration as the character of Baby Doll (Emily Browning – The Uninvited) tried seemingly in vain to fight her way back to reality.

In many ways this story reminded me of a mash-up of “Inception,” “Kill Bill” and “Moulin Rouge!” The layers of Baby Doll's psychosis, the manic quest-oriented violence and the inclusion of popular music in an obviously anachronistic way helped create a scenario where WWI zombie steampunk germans, giant robo-mecha, orcs, dragons and robot fighters could all coexist without seeming incredulous to the viewer.

In this story Baby Doll has been forced into a psychiatric hospital in an era when ice pick lobotomies were still practiced (but the year was left vague). Her evil step-dad engineered the procedure illegally with the help of orderly Blue Jones (Oscar Isaac) so he could control the wealth she and her sister inherited after her mother died and didn't leave the money to him. In the prologue the little sister met a bad end when Baby Doll accidentally killed her while trying to stop the step-dad from making untoward advances. This trigger for the mental unraveling and the ticking clock of the impending lobotomy set the scene for the fantastic journey through the movie.

Sucker Punch was not a character study where the mental and emotional issues of Baby Doll were examined and dealt with. This was a deep-dive into a mentally unbalanced realm from the unreliable viewpoint of the unbalanced. We saw the way she constructed a world to compensate for the disintegration of her life. There was not analysis, progress or breakthroughs. Baby Doll was caught in a vortex clawing her way out.

In the first shell of unreality, the hospital was transformed into a nightclub and the inmates were then showgirl/sex workers imprisoned against their wills by the owner of the club; the transformed orderly Blue. When asked to dance, she shifts into the second layer unreality where everything moved like a video game/music video. This unreality was very task and goal oriented with the girls in her cohort ; Sweet Pea (Abbie Cornish), her younger sister Rocket (Jena Malone), Blondie (Vanessa Hudgens) and Amber (Jamie Chung) kicking butt and taking names to a soundtrack of Bjork's “Army of Me” and covers of Jefferson Airplane’s “White Rabbit” and Iggy Pop's “Search and Destroy.” The music was paired with the action so well that there was very little need for dialog in these scenes outside of Scott Glenn’s Wise Man setting up the scenario. A welcome moment of comic relief was added to the fantasy sequences when Glenn got to deliver some pretty cheesy lines with a straight, yet desaturated, face.

We never saw Baby Doll dance and that made it a mystery for your head to fill in. If Snyder had showed Baby Doll dancing, the magic she cast on the inhabitants of her psyche would be ruined. It was a bit of misdirection that both fed into the need for action as she desperately battled her inner demons, giants, zombies and robots and upheld the mysterious nature of hypnotic dance moves.

Emily Browning did an OK job playing Baby Doll but did a better job with her cover of Eurythmics’ “Sweet Dreams” that played over the prologue. While this wasn’t her first movie or her first time playing a mental patient, she’ll always be remembered by me for playing a different resourceful orphan, Violet Baudelaire, in “Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events.” But that could be because I’ve been reading the book series to my kids and just showed them the movie.

The biggest surprise about Sucker Punch for me was that Snyder was able to pull all of this off and still maintained a PG-13 rating. For me it was a bit obvious that they weren't talking about what the girls did with the clients in the private rooms and that there was a noticeable lack of blood and guts in the battle scenes. But even here the mixing of video game sci-fi tropes helped Snyder preserve mayhem without crossing the line into R rated territory. With steampunk zombies you can shoot them and have steam spurt out like hot blood but since it was steam coming out of the hole you don't get dinged like it was blood. And you could kill dozens of robots in what would be horrific ways if it were humans and get away with the PG-13 because it is not a human that was being chopped to bits. Even when there was violence in the more realistic segments it was stark and brutal enough to hide the fact that it had been sanitized in exactly the right way to keep the movie with its more profitable PG-13.

I won't give away the ending but I will say that Snyder bucks a major Hollywood trend with the ending. I found the departure somewhat shocking but in line with elements planted earlier in the story.

I'm not going to comment on the sexism or empowerment issues or the deconstruction of pop-culture. Not that this analysis wouldn’t be worthwhile but I think those elements were tangential to the story Snyder was telling. The story was internally consistent enough that you should be able to enjoy the ride whether the pop culture meter was set to chop, blend or puree.