The Aisle Seat - Movie Reviews by Mike McGranaghan
Page copy protected against web site content infringement by Copyscape
Send this page to Twitter!  

THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan


Sucker Punch
It's always important to look hot while doing battle.

I'm the type of person who would rather see a movie that aims high and misses than one that aims low and hits. Zack Snyder's Sucker Punch is not entirely successful, yet it at least tries to do something different. I appreciate the attempt. Snyder's previous films, Dawn of the Dead, 300, Watchmen, and Legend of the Guardians were all visually striking pieces of entertainment that I loved. This one is maybe the most visually gorgeous of all; it's in the execution of the story that it falters.

Emily Browning plays Baby Doll, a young woman whose abusive stepfather involuntarily commits her to a mental institution. She had the chance to kill him but didn't take it, and now he's offering the institution's administrator, Blue Jones (Oscar Isaac), big money to lobotomize her so she can never reveal his evil actions. Baby Doll immediately bonds with the other girls on the ward - Sweet Pea (Abbie Cornish), her sister Rocket (Jena Malone), Blondie (Vanessa Hudgens), and Amber (Jamie Chung) - and learns that the staff psychiatrist, Dr. Vera Gorski (Carla Gugino), has her patients act out their traumas on a theatrical stage as a form of therapy.

This sounds like nothing she'd be interested in, so Baby Doll makes a plan to escape before the doctor (Jon Hamm) arrives to give her the lobotomy. Her coping skills, it turns out, are not far off from what Dr. Gorski recommends; she creates an interior fantasy world in which she and the other girls work in a burlesque club, with Blue as the owner and Gorski as the dance instructor. Within this imaginary mindscape, they plot to get away, but doing so requires them to steal five crucial objects from the club (i.e. from the institution). Further Inception-izing things is that there are dream sequences within dream sequences. Every time the girls steal a necessary item, Baby Doll envisions them as fierce warriors battling a wide array of nemeses.

Sucker Punch uses its fantastical concept to throw every kind of nerd-bait imaginable up on the screen: hot girls in revealing clothing, zombies, robots, dragons, gigantic monsters, knights in armor, explosive devices, war planes, machine guns, flaming dirigibles, and samurai swords. There's plenty of videogame-style action and anime-inspired imagery. If you are a nerd for any of these things (and I am guilty as charged on several counts), there is a certain amount of pleasure to be derived from how blatantly Sucker Punch overloads you with them. When you watch pretty little Baby Doll in her neo-schoolgirl outfit picking up a massive sword and dodging fireballs to take down a golem ten times her size, it's a sight to marvel at. Sometimes we go to movies for a big old helping of Awesome, and the dream elements deliver on that count. The film possesses a modern, high-tech sense of spectacle that I really enjoyed.

The problem is that it doesn't provide enough context for any of these things. Baby Doll's personality and her predicament are just barely established, so we don't really understand, for instance, where she gets the inspiration for her fantasies. (They seem more appropriate for a boy to conjure up.) There are no scenes showing us that she had a vivid imagination before her institutionalization, nor are there any moments in which we learn why she's choosing to create such unreal scenarios in her mind. Snyder gives us plenty of close-ups of Emily Browning's big, soulful eyes to let us know that Baby Doll is "damaged," without providing actual motivation for her to choose this particular coping strategy. Honestly, it seems like she fantasizes about all this stuff because it's what the male writer/director is a fan of.

Furthermore, the action scenes find the girls fighting generic enemies. It's not like the Stormtroopers in Star Wars, where you have some understanding of what they represent and what their victory would mean. While ecstatically cool to look at, the moments of action never generate authentic excitement because they're one-sided: terrific heroes, nondescript villains.

Sucker Punch wants badly to be a female empowerment tale. I'm sure many folks will find it ironic that the film tries to send that sort of message while still reveling in the T&A of its female cast. I'll defend it (slightly) on that count, though. To his credit, I think Snyder does this intentionally to reflect that his characters feel sexualized by the male oppressors in their lives. That hunger for female flesh is the Achilles heel they attack to gain the upper hand. If nothing else, it's nice to see a comic book-y, videogame-y movie attempt to make a feminist statement of any stripe, even if the end result is half-understandable and half-questionable.

I think there are ambitious themes at play in Sucker Punch. The performances are generally appropriate for the material, with Emily Browning proving to be the standout. On every technical and visual level, the film is astonishing. On a story level, though, it never achieves the kind of meaningfulness it strives for. Without more psychological/emotional development of Baby Doll and her companions, we're left with a picture that makes passionate love to your eyeballs while leaving your heart untouched.

( 1/2 out of four)

Sucker Punch is rated PG-13 for for thematic material involving sexuality, violence and combat sequences, and for language. The running time is 2 hours.