Sunday, March 27, 2011

Sucker Punch: Freedom From Prison Leads to a Fanboy's Wet Dream

Sucker Punch
Directed By: Zac Snyder
Written By: Zac Snyder and Steve Shibuya
Starring: Emily Browning, Abbie Cornish, Jena Malone, Vanessa Hudgens, Jamie Chung, Carla Gugino, Oscar Isaac, Jon Hamm, and Scott Glenn
Director of Photography: Larry Fong, Editor: William Hoy, Production Designer: Rick Carter, Original Music: Tyler Bates and Marius De Vries
Rated: PG-13, for a mixture of sci-fi, war, and period violence, mixed in with some sexual suggestions, but no actual sex.

            Zac Snyder is what I would call an iconic director. Not that his films are iconic masterpieces or cherished works of filmmaking that will go down in history, but his shots are designed to be viewed as iconic. With a combination of slow motion, intense close-ups, and high contrast production design, everything in Mr. Snyder’s vision is meant to say, “Look at this and remember how cool it was.” This came easy to the director for his adaptations of the graphic novels 300 and Watchmen, where Mr. Snyder could simply rip the frames from the comic and put it on to stage. But in doing those, Mr. Snyder lost the heart of the story, especially in the densely packed Watchmen (His first film, the frenetic and humorous Dawn of the Dead remake remains his best work).

            But how does he fare with an original script, perhaps one that comes with a unique and perhaps challenging premise for the director? That’s what we have in Sucker Punch, a visual mess of fury and fanboyism, wrapped in an attempt to speak about the power of storytelling and dreams. A bloated and ambitious disaster, Sucker Punch is nonetheless fascinating in the discussions it could spark about female exploitation and misogyny, and whether those orc samurai and German zombies have any relevance in the story. Mr. Snyder has probably reached to the highest potential here in both his filmmaking as well as his storytelling ability, and it’s unique that we get to see a director fall as hard as he does here. But watching how he falls is what makes this film so damn interesting.

            The opening five minutes, played to a remixed version of “Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This),” set up the story of a young girl known only as Babydoll, who is sent to a mental hospital by her cruel stepfather in an attempt to collect money off of the now dead mother’s will. Babydoll, played by a blank Emily Browning, loses herself to her mind in the prison, reimagining instead as a 1930s burlesque whorehouse, where she and the other girls perform dances for the rich, while under the command of a dance teacher (Carla Gugino with an embarrassingly bad accent that mixes Polish and German) and the cruel owner (Oscar Isaac). When Babydoll finally finds her rhythm to the beat, we don’t see her dance but instead enter a world of imagination where The Right Stuff’s Scott Glenn sends her on a quest to retrieve sacred items from a mix of fantastic creatures, while in the real world, Babydoll’s friends (Abbie Cornish, Jena Malone, Vanessaa Hudgens, and Jamie Chung) steal the actual items while the men are entranced.

            The idea with dreams and their correlation to real life is a classic idea made for cinema’s fluidity in narrative space, but Mr. Snyder’s biggest problem with Sucker Punch is his metaphors go skin deep, and the implication of the film—these women are only empowered by their bodies, something Mr. Snyder doesn’t mind shooting in very sexed up fashion—is somewhat disturbing. I don’t think that’s the story Mr. Snyder is going for, because in his spectacle scenes, he arms his women with samurai swords and machine guns as they battle the machinations of Babydoll’s mind in Mr. Snyder’s iconic filmmaking style. But once again, this style seems to have no greater meaning besides the one to one relation the film offers up.

            I think there is some sort of a good movie buried in Sucker Punch, even more than in Mr. Snyder’s failed attempt to bring Watchmen to the screen, as it seems to offer up ideas about female protagonists and the action genre. But Mr. Snyder is too blunt and too much of a fanboy to really offer up any idea on these subjects. His primary interest lies in the purely visual, the style over the substance. It’s touch to watch a film with such an original premise, because I’d rather see bad original movies than dismissive sequels. Yet the problem that holds back such originality is that Sucker Punch is only going down the usual roads in terms of its action and narrative, its just mashing them all up together.

            With some hope, Mr. Snyder can break out of his mold and think about what his images can translate in terms of meaning instead of their aesthetic quality. He’s a director that creates divisive films that will both challenge your patience for nonstop action as well any hope that you will be intellectually challenged. And yet, Sucker Punch’s abrasiveness is a unique film that takes risks rarely seen in Hollywood films. You will just wish those risks actually paid off.

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