Zack Snyder’s Sucker Punch is named for that infamous blow that comes without warning, catching the recipient off-guard and unprepared. I would say, coming out of the theater last night, that I was sucker-punched by this film, but only in the sense that I was unprepared for how much I hated it.
But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. I’ve been watching Snyder since Dawn of the Dead (2004), which I always felt was the best of the Dead remakes. It had a great sense of pacing and really knew how to develop the impending sense of doom that the zombie genre trades on. Prior to that, he was a commercial director for over a decade, which explains his over-emphasis on visuals in all of his features. (Another example of a commercial-gone-feature director is Michael Bay, who made a name for himself directing car spots for quite some time. Go figure.)
Snyder followed Dawn up with an adaptation of Frank Miller’s 300 in 2006, a movie that really solidified the visual techniques that he would become known for: high-contrast, low-saturation imagery combined with an excessive use of slow-motion. He uses so much slow-motion in 300 that he makes John Woo films seem like they’re playing in 2x by comparison. I personally disliked this movie, although I appreciated that he was bringing indie comic book properties to the silverscreen. It was successful enough that it spawned a parody movie as well as a very similar TV show on the Starz network, so clearly I am in the minority here.
When his Watchmen remake was announced, I remember being terrified. This was my favorite comic story of all-time, in the hands of a guy who couldn’t even introduce a character without making an action set-piece out of it. It didn’t help that Watchmen was an incredibly complex story to be telling; it has the kind of plot that would have been better suited for a three-part tv movie like Hallmark’s Dune, not a single 2-hour feature. My actual experience seeing Watchmen was anticlimactic: I enjoyed myself throughout most of it, happy that the narrative mostly held together and the Hollywoodized characters all seemed to work. And then the whole production kind of fell apart for me because of its nonsensical ending. I would posit that anyone who thought that that ending actually worked may have been partially stupefied by Dr. Manhattan’s Cherenkov radiation, the director himself included.
It was largely because of my dissatisfaction with Watchmen that I skipped Snyder’s 2009 foray into animation, the clumsily-titled Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga’Hoole. Personally, I think that the fact they got Owl City to perform the theme song for this film (OMFG! Get it?) is more than enough to give you an idea of its creative sensibilities. When I first started reading about Sucker Punch, I regarded it with some hesitation. Snyder is at the point in his career where he can start spreading his proverbial wings. He’s helming the upcoming Superman remake, with Chris Nolan producing. I knew that Sucker Punch was almost certainly a vanity project; the visually-rich story (written by Snyder himself) plays to all of the director’s strengths. And since most of the film occurs within the lead character’s head, you could tell a totally irrational story and justify it by saying that it was all a fever dream. I suppose what surprised me was the extent to which I was correct about these preconceptions, and how far Snyder chose to take his signature stylings.
Sucker Punch is a truly bizarre piece of work. It begins with not one but two song-length montages, in which Emily Browning’s character (Baby Doll) is introduced, and hurried through the death of her mother, her ensuing conflict with her step-father, her accidental shooting of her younger sister, and her subsequent admission in to the Lennox House asylum. These two montages are not badly made; in fact, if you interspersed them with clips of Emily Browning singing (she contributes a number of songs to the soundtrack), you’d have an award-winning music video on your hands. But from a narrative standpoint, it misses an important piece of information. When we arrive at the asylum, we are led to believe that Baby Doll is being wrongly committed, i.e., she’s actually not crazy. But we are flung into her delusions almost immediately upon arrival … so is she crazy or not?
In a ComicCon interview, Snyder explains that Sucker Punch‘s main schtick is an attempt to explore how our minds deal with hardship, and how we create these worlds for ourselves to help us cope. It’s roughly the same theme as Guillermo del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth, but that movie conveys its message (much more successfully, I might add) by firmly grounding the rest of the tale in reality. Sucker Punch has no such machinations. Instead, Snyder decides to go all Inception on our collective asses, by then introducing a daydream within the daydream. Four of them, in fact, with each one set in a slightly different sci-fi/fantasy universe. Why this happens is completely unexplained. It’s also largely unnecessary, save for the fact that it awarded the visual effects house Animal Logic a substantial chunk of the film’s US$82-million budget.
The visual effects work is impressive, to be sure. It overuses slow-motion again, as always (if you played all of the slow-motion sequences in this movie at normal speed, the whole thing would be 30 minutes shorter), but overall the production and creature design is meticulous and really top-notch. If I didn’t have to watch the movie itself, I would have really enjoyed the various set-pieces as standalone Youtube clips. But the ambiguity of the storyline does these FX sequences a disservice: I actually felt bored watching them. There was never any context, so there was no sense of urgency or danger at any point in the story. When the movie introduces its supporting characters, it does so within the daydream, so it isn’t clear if they’re “real” people or just figments of Baby Doll’s imagination. So even when they start dying, you’re not really sure if you should care. By the time Baby Doll awakens from the base daydream, we realize that some of that stuff did indeed happen – those characters actually died – but at that point it’s too late to feel emotional about it.
As it draws to a close, the movie explains everything that happened in its previous 100 minutes with a two-sentence exchange between some supporting characters. I’m not sure if it was supposed to be one of those big reveals, ala Usual Suspects or Sixth Sense, but it’s carried out so offhandedly that you’ll miss it if you’re not paying attention. And then it ends the whole sorry affair with a hilariously written voiceover about finding ourselves, or some other bullshit.
Zack Snyder’s directorial career has been an interesting one to follow. In many ways, he’s like Guillermo del Toro in that he alternates between adapting comic book properties and developing personal projects. Unlike del Toro though, I don’t see him steadily improving with each new picture. He probably enjoyed himself tremendously while making this film, but it isn’t clear whether audiences are enjoying themselves along with him. What’s clear though is this: Sucker Punch is one hell of a demo reel.