If you saw any ten minutes of Sucker Punch disconnected from the rest of the film, you’d swear it was a masterpiece. Director Zack Snyder unleashes his visual imagination to stunning effect, creating a swirling canvas of unbridled chaos on which to paint. It taps into the adrenaline-producing lizard brain of our inner twelve-year-olds: the kind that falls in love with pulse-pounding video games and embraces kinetic action for its own sake. On that level, Sucker Punch does exactly what it’s intended to do, and with genuinely original content to boot.
Only when you take the film as a whole does its flimsy nature begin to devour itself and – what’s worse – reveal the underlying narrative for a sadly misguided flop. The flashy visuals run out of gas when their meaningless nature becomes apparent, and while the story at the center of it all holds great potential, Snyder moves it in truly disastrous directions.
He starts with a girl named Baby Doll (Emily Browning), sent to a lunatic asylum by a wicked stepfather eager to silence her for good. A corrupt orderly (Oscar Isaac) arranges for her to be lobotomized in a few days. Within that time frame, she needs to find a way to escape by plunging deep within her internal landscape. There, she imagines herself as the prisoner of a bordello, whose dancing drives men wild. Each dance helps her and her colleagues find an object vital to their break-out attempt – a map of the grounds, a key and so on – delivered via another series of fantasies in which she and her fellow inmates become ass-kicking special operatives in a series of fantasy war zones.
Sucker Punch keeps the varying levels of unreality clear, but that’s not really the problem. The bordello sequences feel utterly extraneous – a variation on the “real” asylum that facilitates skimpy costumes instead of drab hospital frocks – while the combat scenes eventually grow more oppressive than exhilarating. The structure smacks of elaboration for its own sake, an attempt to emulate films like Inception without the same sense of narrative daring. Snyder’s vision fills this world with all manner of awesome images, but their grab-bag randomness gets by more on novelty value than dramatic power.
More importantly – and the key to Sucker Punch’s ultimate failure – the heroines’ would-be empowerment rings as hollow as a gong. Snyder posits the narrative as a form of feminism, reveling in the girls’ mutual strength and ability to face down impossible odds. But he never truly empowers them. They remain fearful victims for most of the narrative, filching items from monstrous men who make their lives a constant horror show. Baby Doll doesn’t want to defeat these men; she wants to run away from them. “The freedom of escape” becomes the girls’ overarching mission, as they scurry through the story like mice afraid of the cat and plot in the dark rather than confront the Bad Men head-on. There’s no defiance a la One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest: no challenging the Powers That Be anywhere but in Baby Doll’s head. Even her ass-kicking combat scenes become foregone conclusions, emphasizing their lack of connection to the real dangers surrounding her, and playing like the wishful fantasies of a bullied child.
Coupled with the skimpy outfits, implied prostitution and general skeeziness, it paints a far different picture than the Girl Power fist-pumping for which it was clearly intended. We get to leer at the young flesh and watch them gun down hordes of bad guys without feeling threatened by their abilities, and Sucker Punch makes sure they suffer all manner of humiliations in the interim. The film clearly thinks it’s championing feminist values while systematically destroying those values with every shot: an inadvertent piece of drooling misogyny cloaked in Xbox trappings. On more superficial levels, the relentless visual assault becomes too numbing to appreciate Snyder’s design, turning an initially energizing kick into a kaleidoscopic mess. Snyder spoke about the relief he felt at being able to explore his own vision rather than meeting the expectations of someone else’s. It’s still a vision worth pursuing. But not here and never with such unpleasant, troubling and ultimately self-destructive results.