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Review: Sucker Punch (2011)

Sucker Punch (2011)

Directed by: Zack Snyder

Premise: A young woman (Emily Browning) is institutionalized when her step father frames her for murder. In order to survive inside the institution, she hallucinates that she is a sex worker in a brothel who copes with the horrors of her lot by dreaming that she and her fellow prisoners are a squad of superheroes on life and death missions.

What Works: Director Zack Snyder’s technical faculty with special effects and his ability to create striking imagery is beyond dispute and Sucker Punch demonstrates considerable technical accomplishment, eclipsing anything in his body of work so far, including the remake of Dawn of the Dead, 300, and Watchmen.

What Doesn’t: But while Sucker Punch is the most impressive demonstration of Zack Snyder’s technical skill it is equally expressive of his faults as a storyteller. The film is a dream-within-a-dream and it makes this multiple story frame clear to the audience early on in the movie. Other films such as Inception, The Fountain, and A Nightmare on Elm Street have used similar story frames but Sucker Punch misses the keys to making those dream scenarios work. First, just like in an actual dream, the characters, props, and events must be symbols that correspond to happenings in to the outermost frame of the story, which would be “real life” from the point of view of the dreamer. Second, what happens in the dream must have some kind of real significance to the story. Sucker Punch fails on both accounts. The imaginary missions that the squad of young women takes on are entirely arbitrary and have no relevance to the dreamer or to the conflicts in the outer frames of the story. The action scenes are furious and elaborate but they are also hollow because it is all a dream and nothing that happens in it has any consequences. Because it does not present anything we are to take as real or meaningful, Sucker Punch gets frustrating and even boring about halfway through and action sequences that should be rousing are just piddling exercises in special effects. Aside from the problem of the conception of the story, Sucker Punch is also lacking in character; the female characters are sexy but vapid victims who never act with any sense of purpose and none are distinguishable from the others except by hair color. More problematically, Sucker Punch plays like a women’s prison movie but here again it misses the key to making that kind of story work. The characters do not come to any of the familiar epiphanies or face the characteristic struggles of prison films such as asserting themselves against the institution or forming meaningful bonds of camaraderie. Instead, they stand around and look pretty in between sessions of being victimized and as a whole Sucker Punch has the characteristics and allure of a rape fantasy. Sexual female characters can be interesting and even transgressive such as the women of Sin City, Bound, or Basic Instinct. But the women of Sucker Punch are posing as representations of feminist power while really fulfilling violent misogynist fantasies.

Bottom Line: Sucker Punch is a bad movie, although it is conceivable that that this film might someday become the contemporary equivalent of a midnight cult movie since it includes many of the trashy and campy elements that cult moviegoers adore. For the meantime, Sucker Punch stands as the signature piece of Zack Snyder’s film career, both for good and bad reasons.

Episode: #333 (April 2, 2011)