Film Review: Sucker Punch


“Don’t let appearances fool you, for they can be as fierce as any dragon.”

Sucker Punch opens on a stage, the curtains being drawn back, hinting at the idea that this might not actually be happening. Two girls kneel at their mother’s deathbed, and in an extended musical sequence (a cover of “Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This)” performed by Emily Browning), Babydoll (Emily Browning) attempts to kill her molesting stepfather, who promptly checks her into Lennox House for the Mentall Ill, vehemently requesting (and bribing an employee to ensure) a lobotomy for his stepdaughter. She soon moves into a fantasy world, one in which she is being introduced to a brothel and will be made to dance for a “high-roller” (the incoming lobotomist).

Soon after, Babydoll enters a fantasy-within-a-fantasy of a snow-covered temple with a monk (Scott Glen) who asks what she wants. When she responds that she wants to be free, he gives her a task. First, she must take her weapons (a gun and a samurai sword), then she must find five things: map, fire, a knife, and a key, and an unknown item: “a mystery, it is the reason, it is the goal. It will be a deep sacrifice and a perfect victory. Only you can find it, and when you do, it will set you free.”

She distracts the orderlies by dancing as the other girls help to obtain these items. Each time, she (or they? It’s unclear) slip into a new fantasy world in which an epic battle is waged while they seek for a hyperbolized, fantastical version of the item for which they’re searching.

Reality is fluid here, shifting from “the real world” into one which each individual girl makes for herself. These shifts are generally cued by music, which is an interesting concept, calling back to Moulin Rouge. Much like director Zack Snyder’s previous films, it is extremely atmospheric, effectively using digital grading and 85% CG backgrounds to set the tone and feel.

Our heroines are led about by a Wise Man character. Ostensibly, this echoes a Campbellian hero quest when a mentor calls our protagonists to action. However, it soon becomes clear that his words are hollow, nothing but “fierce appearances.” We know he’s supposed to be an Obi-Wan Kenobi-esque wise man because he doles out fortune-cookie “wisdom” that never says anything:

“Remember ladies, if you don’t stand for something, you’ll fall for anything.”

“Don’t ever write a check with your mouth that you can’t cash with your ass.”

“You know, for those who fight for it, life has a flavor the sheltered with never know.”

We learn nothing from him. He’s supposed to be a guiding force for the girls, but how? He guides them through fantasy, hyperbolized, hypersexualized situations that are feasts for the eyes in many ways, but never bringing us closer to any kind of truth.

The problem with this film is that, for all its visually arresting pomp and circumstance—albeit  visceral, scantily-clad-sex-kitten pomp–it exhibits no deeper substance than a Disney movie. Over and over again, we’re told things like:

“Don’t let appearances fool you, for they can be as fierce as any dragon.”

“It’s like we talked about, you control this world. Let the pain go, let the hurt go, let the guilt go. What you are imagining right now, that world you control. That place can be as real as any pain.”

The theme of the movie, as evidenced repeatedly by quotes such as these, is that really nothing matters. You make your own reality. The only things that matter are appearances—the reality you make for others to see. We should be self-actualized, self-empowered, but to what end?

Survival.

The final line of the film:

 “Who honors those we love with the very life we live? Who sends monsters to kill us, and at the same time sings that we’ll never die? Who teaches us what’s real, and how to laugh at lies? Who decides why we live, and what we’ll die to defend? Who chains us, and who holds the key to set us free? It’s you. You have all the weapons you need. Now fight!”

Ok. But what have we learned?

We limit ourselves? Hinder ourselves? Absolutely.

What are we fighting against? Ourselves.

Everything we need to save ourselves is contained within ourselves. But we are our own worst enemy.

So what must we do?

I’m not really sure. Are you?

This is the epitome of Hollywood, faux-philosophical, postmodern muck that has been forced down our throats for quite a while: “We must do whatever we can to survive, but we’re our own worst enemy.”

What do we do with that?

This paradoxical thinking just keeps us mired in a frustrating labyrinth. This film features a cast of girls who might be good actresses, but that really doesn’t matter because they’re so often scantily clad and sensuously gyrating that we only get fleeting chances to witness acting. I have a feeling Zack Snyder thought he was making a film about female empowerment. After all, the girls use their sexuality to distract their onlookers while they get down to the business of escaping. They hold big guns and do some impressive physical work (I’ll absolutely give those actresses credit for their physicality—something we don’t get to see in many young actresses these days). However, in the end the empowerment is just a façade—all of the protagonists are defeated.

Remember that lesson we’re supposed to learn? The one about how you can win everything if you just believe in yourself and just fight (fight what?). Apparently that doesn’t really get you anywhere.

Maybe victory isn’t the goal. Maybe the only goal is the attempt to win, to fight until you die. But is death escape? We’re not sure.

I could rant for quite a while about this film. The visually impressive nature of this film fully accentuates the theme it’s trying to assert: in the end, substance matters not, as long as you look really good doing whatever it is you’re doing. That’s all that matters, doing something.

If you want to watch a film about empowerment for women, there are a few others that do it better. If you want answers to life’s questions, there’s another place I can think of. This is a load of faux-philosophical rot with lots of pretty people sprinkled on top.

1.5 out of 5 stars

(1 star awarded for visual achievement)

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