Oh how this film could have been revolutionary. It could have been a subversive, dare I say, feminist riposte to a generation of males weaned on controlling videogames with female avatars that are glorified T&A. Unfortunately the film revels in and never questions or subverts videogame imagery and due to inherent weaknesses in script and characterisation any riposte falls flat.
The story begins with the death of a mother who, in her will, bequeaths everything to her two daughters whilst their abusive father is cut out. This leaves him in a rage from which the two girls are forced to defend themselves but the older sister, Baby Doll (Emily Browning) inadvertently kills her younger sister allowing the father to have her committed to Lennox House for the Mentally Insane, an institution where a corrupt head orderly named Blue Jones (Oscar Isaac) cuts a deal with the father to forge a signature allowing a lobotomy to be conducted on Baby Doll by a doctor (John Hamm) who will visit in five days time. Those five days flash by and, on the verge of the lobotomy, the film flash-backs revealing how Baby Doll had created a dream world brothel to layer over her miserable reality. When she is forced to perform exotic dances in the dream, she creates yet another dream to escape into to hide from the abuse and plan her escape from the lobotomy. Baby Doll is joined by other inmates, Amber (Jamie Chung), Blondie (Vanessa Hudgens), Rocket (Jena Malone) and Rocket’s older sister Sweet Pea (Abbie Cornish) in an attempt escape the asylum and Blue Jones’ exploitation. Ultraviolent dreams that involve wide-scale destruction and carnage focussed on men. Throughout these dreams, Baby Doll is assisted by a Wise Man (Scott Glenn) who gives advice on how to escape.
The fuss surrounding the film as to whether it is sexist or not is misleading as it is about as sexist as most videogames and movies and does little to differentiate itself from competition. It is not nearly as exploitative as it could have been, not as much fun as it should have been, not nearly as intelligent or revolutionary as it thinks it is.
While I like the notion that to escape the injustices of the male-dominated real world, Baby Doll creates a fantasy world, and in these dreams she and her friends dominate the supposedly male-exclusive world of violence, turning the tables on male oppressors, I found the execution lacked bite because of the lack of oppression (hinted or shown). Baby Doll is in a bad place, sure, but why retreat into dreams? At the risk of sounding sadistic, I needed to see a threat that would make her retreat into drams. Instead of a feeling of urgency and threat connected with the adventures of the girls I was rather bored.
The film enables these girls to fight through their problems and defeat male antagonists using their sexuality and ultra-violence but the story and characters need to be better developed to generate empathy for their plight or ideas that challenge the viewer, and I mean given more things to say and do other than cry and squeal and look sexy.
The actresses spend most of their time dressed in military fetish gear and Snyder’s visual style lovingly highlights their scantily clad perfect bodies in either cool poses or flawless motion which would be fine if not for the fact that trite characterisation undermines the idea that these girls are more than just eye-candy. There’s just nothing to challenge a male audience.
For example, if your lead character is dressed in a schoolgirl outfit similar to Sailor Moon, like so… made to look 12 and named Baby Doll and subject to the male gaze that is the camera and you want her to fight back against masculine perversion then she needs more lines of dialogue and scenes that display her humanity.
You also need a memorable painful scene that reveals the fierceness, intelligence and bravery that she is capable of (and tells men not to screw with her) such as, for example, turning the tables on a guy aaaand possibly stabbing said guy in the crotch.
With close-ups on her so you can witness her display her anger.
Battle Royale style.
Thank you Kuriyama Chiaki, you provided the most uncomfortable thing to see in the cinema (up until Ellen Page conducting surgery in Hard Candy).
Unfortunately, Baby Doll is not given enough scenes to show that she is deadly or capable of growing as an individual so she remains about as challenging as most videogame avatars. When she does strike back at the major antagonist it lacks power. I was left with the impression that for this film to truly be a sucker punch, it needed to be harder and edgier, allowing characters to be far more threatening and threatened to make an impact and challenge the audience.
At one point, the main antagonist calls the girls his toys and the film does little to elevate the females beyond this status. The result is five talented and beautiful actresses reduced to toys in a videogame mash-up entitled Call of Duty: Modern Warcraft.
The problem with the script is further exacerbated by the arrangement of events and how things are elided over. If they had used the five days before the arrival of the High Roller as a ticking clock, a time in which to fully explore the reality and fantasy that Baby Doll exists in and the relationships she built with the world around her and those inhabiting it then it might have made me care because there would be a tension and urgency while watching her try to escape before her lobotomy.
As it is, the music video beginning sets up the film then it cuts straight to the fantasy and a series of fetch quests with little explanation for it and the film wavers uncertainly between dream and reality.
This uncertainty is summed up at one point when the Wise Man asks Baby Doll what she wants and she answers to escape but with all the certainty of somebody not fully committed to the idea of escape. She might as well have asked for a pair of trousers because that scene looked cold.
So the film doesn’t offer subversive thrills or challenge my male expectations – it wanted to get to the battles sharpish. Now these battles are mildly entertaining featuring a mash-up of nerd-cool enemies (Mecha vs Bi-Planes, steam-punk zombies, Dragon vs. Bomber). Baby Doll’s first battle is the highlight with giant samurai in a snowbound landscape. After that, the battles all take on a similar tone that fail to go beyond stylish into exciting. Anybody who has watched any of Snyder’s work will recognise the slow motion, extreme close-ups and great rhythm but it isn’t enough.
The actresses should be given respect. They aren’t working with much but they inhabit their roles with beauty and grace. Emily Browning (Violet from the underrated A Series of Unfortunate Events) really needs better material. They all do.
Zack Snyder probably believes the world he has created is more than a cynical cash-in on nerd imagery. The sets and CGI are imaginative and the soundtrack is awesome and it is executed with a degree of panache that shows Snyder is capable of great things. The basic ideas are there but the script and its execution let things down.
In contrast, last year’s Inception created a world and fully explored it. Characterisation might have been slight but the construction of events was thorough and watching the heist was always tense and exciting. More pertinently, Scott Pilgrim, a film about a guy from the videogame generation displayed how you can perceive a world by inflecting everything with videogame imagery and meanings in order for life to make sense. In complete contrast, Sucker Punch must be what it is like actually living in a videogame. Loud, brash, empty.
I don’t want to sound too negative but I expected better from Zack Snyder. His version of Dawn of the Dead was better than anybody (even Romero) thought it would be and 300 and Watchmen were perfect comic-book adaptations. This just felt like a videogame and I wanted more.
I didn’t think the review might go on at such length so as a treat I created a silly video. Thanks for reading. Hope you enjoy.