Last year, Sucker Punch‘s unofficial tagline was that it was writer/director Zack Snyder‘s “Alice in Wonderland with machine guns.”
There are a lot of places you could go with that. If I am to take it at face value and ply it against the film I saw, I suppose it would be to say that Snyder sought to serve nonsense for the sake of nonsense. There’s nothing wrong with that… there’s a good case for fun for the sake of fun. That is, of course, if you find a little nonsense to be good fun.
Unfortunately, Sucker Punch fails because it is not nonsensical enough.
While it is true that there are several sequences that go heartily into the realm of nonsensical action and thrills, two-thirds of the film is positioned squarely on the foundation of a terribly written, implausible “reality” that our lead character originates from and a secondary, plainly corny level of “unreality” that serves as the jumping-off point from which our extra, fantastical adventures are to originate.
If that sounds convoluted, it is. In the worst way – think Inception with an attention deficit.
Five little girls running around in your back yard with plastic guns could improvise a more satisfying premise for making loud noise and jumping around. Truly. A live-action version of South Park‘s “Good Times with Weapons” episode would have yielded a better film.
That aside, I am certain Zack Snyder is aware that this film should have aspired to be nothing more than pulp (I’ll explain that “should have” in a moment). There are too many choices that back that up, and rather than address the film’s many, countless failings, let me shortcut and address the film’s obvious conceit: This film is built on references from a vast net swept through the best miasma of popular culture, but in the end, yields nothing but another dreg.
For instance, Lowbrow Art scenester Alex Pardee famously provided extensive design work for the film (including its logo) and that’s an understandable choice. Lowbrow art, after all, celebrates the arguably coolest corners of popular culture, from anime to monsters to guns to robots to sexy girls, places them on a pedestal with masterly rendered technique, and all to obvious irony.
Somewhere in the ambiguous nature of contemporary art, however, there’s a statement to be gleaned of how popular culture both masks and reveals the damage and growth we sustain while transitioning from childhood to adulthood.
Unfortunately, if that statement were ever Snyder’s goal, he lost grasp of it well before Baz Luhrmann’s curtains ever lift on this film. If he meant to somehow elucidate that by having his lead heroine (Emily Browning) find empowerment through victimization, it is quickly undermined for any resonance or empathy because her story is told through music video montages — montages, I might add, that stretch over your favorite songs as performed with the care that’s found one step down from the quality of Glee.
Indeed, two of those musical homages are performed by the film’s lead actress, though she does not sing them on camera. The implication is that this film might have, at one time, been contemplated as “Moulin Rouge with machine guns.” Conspicuously, Vanessa Hudgens never releases her dubious, High School Musical talents (and I assure you, she was not hired for this film for her skills as a thespian).
If you were to supplant big song-and-dance numbers with fantastical action pieces whilst maintaining the shaky premises that musicals are bridged across, you probably land somewhere in the zip code of this film.
About those machine guns: You might be wondering if I am trying too hard to wedge in a critical perspective on a film that is supposedly critic-proof. I love well-done action sequences and this film has some cool shit in it for sure. Unfortunately, a couple of those sequences stretch for far too long landing in the realm Matrix Reloaded-style redundancy. Also, if you’re one of the many who are already tired of some directors’ over-reliance on shaky-cam as a tension device, bring a barf bag. Snyder hasn’t gotten the memo.
The failure of this film is Snyder’s alone. The majority of the cast brings a level of commitment to this film that the director never validates. (Note to Jon Hamm: it’s okay to say “no” to some projects) While Snyder posses a formidable aesthetic, it is one befitting graphic design — not art. Snyder has neither a grasp of meaning nor irony that might allow him to make a film that resonates, so why is bothering to try?
This film does not fail on a basis of style celebrated over substance. Rather, this film’s failing is poor substance carelessly draped over admittedly amazing style. Come to think of it, the only character in this entire film I ever felt any empathy for was a computer-generated dragon — ostensibly one of the film’s tossed-off villains.
Bottom line: Snyder didn’t go far enough down the rabbit hole, and ended up with a hot mess.