Hollywood has often granted hotshot directors creative freedom after they’ve proved themselves a top talent. Michael Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate in the 1980s almost brought down a studio under the weight of the director’s ambition and, more recently, Kurt Wimmer and Kerry Conran showed that putting too much faith in the hands of the director can result in poor returns. Zack Snyder’s efforts remaking Dawn of the Dead and then bringing graphic novels 300 and Watchmen to the big screen earned him free reign for his live action follow up Sucker Punch. An action/drama spectacular drenched in fantasy, Snyder’s computer game-esque sequences see a group of girls battling all manner of enemies to escape a brothel that is used as symbolism for a girl’s entrapment in a mental asylum. This premise gives Snyder plenty of opportunity to flex his creative muscle, but this original effort exposes his shortcomings as a writer.
The ideas behind Sucker Punch make for a potentially complex tale that blends and bends genres for a challenging and fun ride. Baby Doll (Emily Browning) is the central character seen in the posters posing as battle-ready armed with a samurai sword, though that is not her persona in the real world. In reality she has been committed to a mental asylum after she mistakenly shot her sister when trying to protect her from their sexually abusive stepfather (Gerard Plunkett). The father bribes one of the asylum’s staff, Blue (Oscar Isaac) to forge the signature of Dr. Vera Gorski (Carla Gugino) to have Baby Doll lobotomised and to deal with her situation, she retreats into a fantasy land where the asylum is re-imagined as a brothel owned by Blue, whom she envisions as a mobster. There she must dance for clients in wait for the High Roller to arrive and buy her, so she plots with her fellow dancers a plan to escape before she is sold off.
Sucker Punch falls foul of being a high concept that’s spent too much time in Snyder’s head.
The samurai-wielding Baby Doll does not make appearance until her first dance, which we never see. Instead we are taken to a second level of fantasy in which she meets a trainer (Scott Glenn) who tells her what she will need to obtain to escape the brothel before arming her weapons and she proceeds to battle giant samurai warriors in an action sequence clearly inspired by computer game dynamics and the stylised visuals of graphic novels. It is here that Suck Punch thrives as Snyder relishes the freedom of having Baby Doll kitted out in a Sailor Moon costume including short mini skirt, thigh-high stockings and heels, but this first in what becomes a series of teenage boy fantasy-friendly excursions is a step too far for a movie that never really explains itself.
In the head of Snyder, he seems to have decided that Baby Doll and her girls in sexy dress fighting against samurai, steam-powered German soldiers, dragons and robots would be a hoot – and it is – but his desire to make these fights symbolic for Baby Doll’s dances in the brothel fail to accurately mirror what’s really happening. Instead the visceral scenes are very enjoyable at the time, then leading to increasing confusion when you come to try to follow their real significance. Even harder is to care how all this ties into the asylum reality, and by the end it’s hard to know whether anyone but Snyder can get their head round how it all fits together after you’ve been thrown around the various worlds a few times.
Granted Snyder’s got a keen eye for detail with the asylum, brothel and action sequences given their own unique palettes and pacing, though he’s clearly more at home with his females duking it out than trying to build their characters with dialogue. Putting them in sexy dress borrows heavily from Japanese anime yet, without the look not a tradition of Hollywood cinema, can’t help be seen as slightly mis-guided given it’ll be seen as sexist among audiences not aware of the genre. Coupled with an increasingly dis-engaging narrative, Sucker Punch falls foul of being a high concept that’s spent too much time in Snyder’s head to be a practical project. An admirable attempt that for all its visual gusto, trivialises Baby Doll’s situation to the point of becoming as deep as watching someone else play a videogame. Perhaps someone should have had a closer eye on Snyder’s work to sense check his efforts: his next project is the Superman film Man of Steel which he’ll be under considerable scrutiny to produce the goods DC Comics demand, and with good reason.