Thursday 15 September 2011

Fin de cinéma

I believe I intellectually understood every element of Sucker Punch, and yet in a larger sense it leaves me absolutely baffled. What is Sucker Punch? Why is Sucker Punch? Where is Sucker Punch? I couldn't tell you. So in the course of this review, imagine me as Theseus in the labyrinth. One day I may find my way out. If I manage to slay Zack Snyder in the process, that'll be an added benefit.

In 1961, a twenty-year-old girl (Emily Browning) is blamed for her sister's death and confined to a mental asylum by her evil stepfather (Gerard Plunkett). Seconds before being lobotomised thanks to a signature forged by orderly Blue Jones (Oscar Isaac), the girl retreats to a fantasy world: now nicknamed Baby Doll, she is a newcomer in a brothel run by Blue, who rules over Amber (Jamie Chung), Blondie (Vanessa Hudgens, of High School Musical fame), Rocket (Jena Malone), and her sister Sweet Pea (Abbie Cornish).

The choreographer (Carla Gugino) discovers that Baby Doll is a prodigy when it comes to the erotic dances the girls are asked to perform, so much so that onlookers are hopelessly distracted for the duration of the show. When she dances, Baby Doll enters another fantasy world, in which the Wise Man (Scott Glenn) gives her weapons and tells her that she must find a number of objects that will facilitate her escape from the brothel. Together, the girls resolve to obtain the plot vouchers while Baby Doll dances, in sequences that are visualised as over-the-top fights against giant samurai golems, zombie First World War Germans, orcs and dragons.

Let's begin with the story. It's a three-layer narrative, fairly clearly presented (unlike my synopsis above). The action-fantasy battles symbolise the girls' quest to escape imprisonment at the brothel, and this escape attempt in turn symbolises their efforts to flee Bedlam. But the top layer is totally unnecessary. The mental instution adds nothing but asylum clichés and some card-shuffling; the entire structure could easily be rewritten into a two-layer narrative without losing anything of significance. The awful truth is that Zack Synder loved his three-layer story, finding it elegant and beautiful and poignant. It is not, but tell that to a man in love.

For Sucker Punch is nothing if not a labour of love for director Zack Snyder, who came up with the story and co-wrote the screenplay. Snyder is good at working with others' material: 300 and Watchmen have been criticised, but not usually for being poor adaptations. (I'll give it a try: 300 suffers from Snyder's stately direction compared to the fluidity and dynamism of Frank Miller's drawings.) With Sucker Punch we have a deeply passionate director released from the bonds of source material and/or executive meddling, free to throw at the screen anything and everything he liked when he was twelve years old.

That makes for a deeply self-indulgent and frankly tiresome film. Snyder is known for his stylised direction, and I'd venture that worked in 300. Not a frame of that film looked real, but that was a stroke of genius, perhaps the best cinematic rendering of how ancient Greek warriors actually saw themselves, rather than what classicists would like them to have been. But in Sucker Punch, the plastic unreality, equally present in the scenes supposedly set in the real world and in Baby Doll's fantasies, lessens the impact of everything that happens, especially since the film fails to get the audience invested in the characters and takes too long to get started (another thing to thank the three layers for).

Sucker Punch looks and feels exactly like a video game, and as a gamer I don't mean that as an insult. While watching it, I constantly thought how much I'd like to play the scenes portrayed, and how boring they are to watch. Imagine seeing someone else play an action-adventure for an hour and a half, and you get the idea.* (I swear there are a couple of shots from a first-person shooter perspective, complete with the gun barrel at the bottom of the screen, and it is A Bad Thing.) Add to that the fact that the CGI isn't great: the curse of almost all computer-rendered imagery, a curious weightlessness, is present in spades, and even without that the work is frankly a little shabby. The real effects are much better, especially the steam-powered German zombies.

Snyder is invested in every aspect. The score, written by longtime Snyder collaborator Tyler Bates and Moulin Rouge! composer Marius de Vries, is excellent, consisting largely of atmospheric industrial cover versions of classic songs. The best of these is a dark, epic take on 'Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This)' sung by Emily Browning, who I daresay deserves better than this. So do almost all the actors, especially Abbie Cornish, whose presence here is comically incongruous to anyone who has seen Bright Star.

There's one last aspect that deserves dissection: this is a film in which five girls in Catholic schoolgirl outfits slay hundreds of almost exclusively male monsters with guns and katanas. (Although there is a scene involving a sword and a dragon mother that would be an excellent subject for Freudian analysis.) Snyder clearly intends for all this to be empowering, but his pure intentions don't prevent a deeply confused message: are women cleaving their way through enemy hordes still liberating themselves if they're dressed like a popular male fantasy? The director argues that he's subverting fanboys' expectations, rendering Sucker Punch a critique of itself. Make of that what you will.

There we have it: a labour of love that is deeply unlovely. I wish it were otherwise: really, there need to be more fantastic hellscapes full of zeppelins. But I'm afraid Sucker Punch is a mess born of true, deep, tragically mistaken ambition on the part of its director, a wildly overblown magnum opus the world didn't need. I've liked Snyder's previous films, and I hope to like his future work: but someone needs to sedate the man and give him sensible material to work with, and never, ever, let him do exactly what he wants again.

* I understand they show StarCraft on the telly in Korea, but still.

1 comment:

  1. "Sucker Punch looks and feels exactly like a video game, and as a gamer I don't mean that as an insult. While watching it, I constantly thought how much I'd like to play the scenes portrayed, and how boring they are to watch. Imagine seeing someone else play an action-adventure for an hour and a half, and you get the idea "
    theres actually a term for this, its called 'gamification'.

    A good critical reading of this concept comes from Ian bogost:

    Aside from that I have to say, I've never had a desire to watch Sucker Punch and this has further cemented such justified prejudice.