Imagination does not exist in a vacuum. We’re inspired by experiences both internal and external. We build our dreams on the dreams of others and if we possess a brilliant imagination, then we can transform these ideas into something fresh and new. With his new film Sucker Punch, director Zack Snyder shows he not only misunderstands how imagination works, he also has no understanding of inspiration, empowerment, or joy. The movie swims through the wet dreams of a teenage boy but pretends at higher aspirations of thoughtful escapism and transcendent determination. For a movie where dragons battle fighter jets and teenage girls in skimpy outfits take down samurai golems, Sucker Punch is a surprisingly dull and self-serious affair that can’t be bothered to develop its heroine, but wants a round of applause every time she defeats a CGI monstrosity. Despite all of the energy put into the stunning vistas and designs, nothing in Sucker Punch’s visuals comes close to the majesty of its delusions of grandeur.
A girl (Emily Browning) is sent to an insane asylum by her cruel stepfather after the girl attempts to kill him and accidentally murders her little sister instead. The stepfather bribes an orderly (Oscar Isaac) to have the girl lobotomized in five days. This is the “reality level” of Sucker Punch even though everything has the same slick production design and editing tricks as the rest of the movie. “Reality” is just grimier and with a more limited color palette.
The second before the girl is given the lobotomy, the scene flips and now the girl is in a brothel where in five days she’ll be sold off to the High Roller. Inside the brothel, the girl, now dubbed “Babydoll”, fashions a plan to escape by obtaining a map, fire, a knife, and a key. She’ll obtain each of these items in the brothel because when she dances, she and her fellow prostitutes Sweet Pea (Abbie Cornish), Rocket (Jena Malone), Amber (Jamie Chung), and Blondie (Vanessa Hudgens), go into a second imagination level where they engage in giant sci-fi fantasy missions to obtain the items needed for escape.
If that sounds confusing, it’s because it doesn’t make much sense and because Snyder has undercut any stakes his movie may have. The movie takes not one but two steps away from reality and any consequences within the fantasy worlds are automatically rendered void. If Babydoll happens to be killed by a bunch of steampunk German soldiers, so what? It was just a fantasy inside her fantasy of being sold into sexual slavery.
If you’re wondering why a teenage girl in 1960s Vermont would fantasize about being in a brothel and then set up fantasies within that fantasy that would appeal more to a 13-year-old boy than a girl dealing with the loss of her mother and sister, I don’t have an answer for you and neither does Sucker Punch. Reading Steve’s set report, I learned that there were books about dragons and robots in Babydoll’s father’s study, but we never see that material. We barely spend any time with Babydoll to learn who she is a character and why she would set her fantasies inside a brothel or why she thinks of herself as a katana-wielding badass who battles alongside mech-warriors. Also, if she really envisioned herself as a soldier fighting alongside other soldiers, why are she and her compatriots dressed in burlesque gear rather than battle armor?
Which brings me to my next point: can we please stop pretending that giving a hot girl in skimpy clothing a weapon and letting her destroy shit constitutes “female empowerment”? Can we just take that notion, murder it with a shovel and bury it in a shallow grave? Here’s what constitutes female empowerment: well-written, memorable female characters. With the exception of Cornish—who manages to convey at least some semblance of inner strength—the lead actresses seem adrift at what to do with their characters other than pout, whimper, seduce, or fight things that don’t exist. The notion that the female characters are “empowered” is further undermined by having the voice of “sage” wisdom come not from the asylum’s chief psychiatrist Dr. Gorski (Carla Gugino) or even Babydoll’s dead mother, but from Scott Glenn playing a guy with no mirror in “reality” who spouts fortune-cookie platitudes like “If you don’t stand for something, you’ll fall for anything,” even though the platitude is in no way helpful or even applicable to the situation at hand.
With no characters or coherent structure, it’s not surprising that the gigantic set pieces lack gravity. Loads of camera tricks, expert fight choreography, and an avalanche of CGI fail to impress when they’re not in service of characters and the story. When Babydoll first receives her mission from Scott Glenn, he then informs her that she has to fight giant stone warriors. Why does she have to fight them? Do they represent anything in the real world? What happens if she loses? What’s laughable is that after Babydoll defeats her enemies, the film takes a moment to pause for hypothetical cheering from the audience, but in my theater you could hear a pin drop after every set piece. Snyder gives us a dazzling array of CGI animation, but can’t be bothered to give the audience a reason to care.
Sucker Punch has an abundance of visual effects, but it’s sorely lacking when it comes to character and story. Snyder’s passion clearly lies with creating vast worlds where retro-fitted war-planes can take on fire-breathing dragons and hot girls in fishnet stockings can mow down a train car full of enemy robots. But he never bothers to come up with a reason why. The film is exploitative garbage that takes itself far too seriously to be aware of its own trashiness. It’s just a collection of male adolescent daydreams that puts the emphasis on “This looks cool” rather than “This is worth caring about.”