In 2006, director Zack Snyder decided to pull out all the stops of traditional cinema. He determined that the world needed more gory comic-book style battle sequences, he realized that the best commentary on the oversexualized nature of our media today was to inflate that characteristic to an unrealistic level, and he discovered that short, memorable one-liners are the most important aspect of dialogue—and so he made “300.” Unfortunately for “Sucker Punch,” these very same techniques did not work their magic the second time around.
Snyder first introduces protagonist Baby Doll (Emily Browning)—a girl framed for the murder of her sister—when she is entering a mental asylum. The stepfather who brought her there pays extra for a quick lobotomy, but as the doctor (Jon Hamm) is about to do the deed, her consciousness frees itself—and Baby Doll finds herself in an imagined brothel with no way out.
The sets for the brothel and the madhouse are exactly the same, the people in charge and their purposes are the same, and the inmates are the same people. The only visual difference between these two realities is that the characters get to wear sparkly clothing in one, and marginally less revealing clothing in the other. All of which begs the question: why does Baby Doll create an alternate reality for herself which is also, essentially, a prison?
But instead of addressing this tantalizing concern, the film continues to further confuse the matter and its viewers. In order to get out of this new entrapment, Baby Doll accesses another dreamworld—that is, for those keeping track, a dreamworld within a dreamworld within reality. Cycles of senseless violence ensue. Wait, haven’t we seen this movie before? For a director who prizes conceptual and visual originality, Snyder proves surprisingly derivative in “Sucker Punch.”
Each time the movie transitions to a different reality, with the music thumping in the background, one half expects a “Level 2” graphic to pop up and a video game controller to materialize out of nowhere. But this is a movie, and it often seems as though no one had any control over its next move. The script is of little help; even its wise old man figure (Scott Glenn) provides scant guidance. “You have all the weapons you need,” he tells Baby Doll and her companions, “now fight.” Unfortunately, this is about as profound as “Sucker Punch” gets.
Dialogue is not the only vacuous element of the film. Somehow, Snyder has managed to take good actors and make them shallow. As Baby Doll, Browning betrays no facial expression throughout the movie, and her big blue puppy-dog eyes look vacantly up at the audience throughout, as though asking for some sort of artistic pity. Oscar Isaac, who plays the pimp of the brothel dreamworld, somehow turns his stereotypically sleazy role into a pitiful shadow of the real menace that his character could have become. And Carla Gugino’s performance as multiple characters is so confusing that one gets the impression that the actor had no idea what it was about either.
The film’s few performance highlights are Abbie Cornish as Sweet Pea and Jena Malone as Rocket, sisters who accompany Baby Doll and evince actual emotion, seeming to genuinely care about each other. Cornish and Malone are but two of Snyder’s pants-averse posse of femme fatales who battle their way through his virtual realities with all the realism of Lara Croft. Accordingly, the film’s visuals are stunning and rival the best of today’s video game imagery, even offering occasional moments of truly comic destructive glee—as when former Disney sweetheart Vanessa Hudgens hacks into zombie Nazis with a battleaxe.
Snyder and company have the right ideas—they just have too many of them. “Sucker Punch” had the potential to be a superb and inventive commentary on the objectification of women or on the human mind, or even just a fun anime-style action flick. Instead, it becomes a mess of video-game references, sequins, and general confusion. The wise old man’s clichéd advice to the girls before they go into battle is sadly too pertinent for the film itself: “If you don’t stand for something, you’ll fall for anything.”