Sucker punch: In theaters where this movie is playing, it’s a beverage sold at the concession stand.
Critics have descended upon the new film from director Zack Snyder (300, Watchmen, Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga’Hoole) like vultures on roadkill. They excoriate it for being a PG-13 version of fanboy porn: for creating a world of teen hotties in bordello bondage fighting dragons and Nazi zombies and then not delivering the lurid goods. “You’ve heard of films wanting their cake and eating it too?” rants Slant’s estimable Ed Gonzalez. “Sucker Punch promises cake and when you show up, it’s fruitcake, and you’re like, ‘What the f— is this s—?’ Because nobody likes fruitcake.”
So naturally, before I’ve even seen Sucker Punch, I’m interested. I do like fruitcake movies — not as in the heavy nut-filled Christmas confections but as in insanely visionary riffs that challenge the status quo in this, the most timid, stolid period in cinema history. I’m the guy who loved the Wachowskis’ Speed Racer, who put Terry Gilliam’s dystopian parable Brazil on the all-TIME 100 Movies list, who found Charlie Kaufman’s Synecdoche, New York a mind-opening trip to madness. I thought that Snyder, when he reprised 50 years of alternative American history in four minutes at the beginning of his 2009 film Watchmen, devised one of the most powerful and teeming sequences of any modern film. I’ll take a too-much movie over a too-little movie any day. Other reviewers are welcome to embrace the anodyne realism of The Kids Are All Right and Blue Valentine. Let me eat fruitcake.
A quarter-century ago, at Pasadena’s Art Center College of Design, Snyder numbered among his classmates Michael Bay (Transformers) and Tarsem Singh (The Fall); his own movies, usually shot on bare stages with long takes, bodies twirling in slo-mo and lots of green-screen work, might be located at the midpoint between Bay’s pummeling soullessness and Singh’s epic surrealism. Snyder made his name with garish movies based reverently on famed comics: Frank Miller’s 300, Alan Moore’s Watchmen. Now, with co-writer Steve Shibuya, he tries an original story — which is to say a pastiche of every lubricious girl-power film ever made.
The premise: back in the 1950s, when twin teens are about to inherit their mother’s fortune, their wicked stepfather kills one of the girls, pins the murder on the other — Emily Browning’s Baby Doll — and sends her to the Lennox House for the Mentally Insane. (This impressive opening sequence is scored to the Eurhythmics’ ’80s hit “Sweet Dreams,” and you’re supposed to connect the name of the asylum to the duo’s lead singer, Annie Lennox.) Learning that she is to be lobotomized in five days, Baby Doll soars or plunges into an alternate reality where the madhouse is a high-end whorehouse and her fellow inmates are her brothel sisters, ready to join her in a five-part quest that could lead to their freedom.
You could say that Sucker Punch is a nymphet version of The Snake Pit or Shutter Island, or a live-action, green-screened redo of The Powerpuff Girls, or Black Swan (Carla Gugino has the demanding dance master role here) with a higher nightmare quotient, or an $82 million tribute to Jess Franco’s sublimely cheesy women-in-prison movies of the ’70s, or an Americanization of Norifumi Suzuki “pinky violence” melodramas (Girl Boss Guerrilla, Sex and Fury) of the same decade, or, in its backstory about a decent girl deprived of her inheritance and consigned to grow up in a prisonlike environment, a gloss on mid-19th-century classics from Jane Eyre to Little Dorrit. With the action scenes playing like production numbers in some high-concept musical, you’ll be reminded of Julie Taymor’s Beatles fantasia, Across the Universe. The visual palette suggests the creepy pastel paintings of Guy Peellaert (Rock Dreams); the fantasy battles with monsters and samurais echo the muscular landscapes of Frank Frazetta and Boris Vallejo. The movie is like an arrested adolescent’s Google search run amok.
The teen boy who would get lost in that cyber wonderland — he’s also Sucker Punch‘s target demographic — is meant to fixate on the five girls who go questing. Known only by their prostitute pseudonyms, they include whey-haired sisters Sweet Pea (Abbie Cornish) and Rocket (Jena Malone), a brunette called Blondie (High School Musical‘s Vanessa Hudgens) and the Asian Amber (Jamie Chung). Snyder doesn’t bother much with differentiating these four, as they may simply be personalities fever-dreamed by Baby Doll. That’s Browning, who with the giant eyes, puffy lips and fake eyelashes could be her own anime doll, the whole package dressed in a Japanese schoolgirl outfit as retailored by Victoria’s Secret.
Odd, then, that the film’s erotic temperature is so tepid. That could be due to the restraints on leering imposed by a PG-13 rating, but more because Snyder is a picturemaker, not a moviemaker. He’s an art director, not a dramatist. Even a movie that means to be hallucinatory — and sets its big scenes to head songs like “White Rabbit,” “Where Is My Mind” and the Beatles’ “Tomorrow Never Knows” — has to energize the in-between talky parts with a little craft and tension. Sucker Punch has vast empty patches, deserts of dead air, especially in scenes dominated by the head villain, Blue (Oscar Isaac), whose endless monologues could be a show reel of the thousand would-be De Niros or Turturros or Leguizamos who flunked their Actors Studio audition. (In Watchmen, too, Snyder got subpar work from some very sharp actors.)
Too much of Sucker Punch gave me the feeling I was peering into a terrarium where the flora was gorgeous but the fauna sluggish. Doggedly hoping the movie would scale the heights of wretched excess, I found that it wussed out on divine delirium; it lacked the courage of its basest pop-cultural convictions. I like this kind of movie — just not this movie. Ultimately, I guess, Gonzalez was right: Sucker Punch is the wrong kind of fruitcake.