Saturday, March 26, 2011
Sucker Punch reminds me a bit of The Matrix Reloaded, both movies are very hyped visual-extravaganzas that claim mind-bending stories. Both movies arrived and delivered substantially different experiences than expected. Both were a little clunky in spots, a little less philosophically deep than they thought they were, and both were critically hammered. But both were entertaining spectacles that, while flawed, presented plenty of material to be dissected by interested viewers, on top of unmatched visual storytelling.
The story has three layers to it, but I think the best way to describe it is that it all takes place inside the head of Babydoll (Emily Browning). She is a potentially insane mental patient who sees the asylum as a garish 1930s brothel where the girls dance for the pleasure of the doctors and wardens. However, from this reality she can drop either into a dream state, or into a more real plane of existence. In the former, reached whenever an unusually difficult task is presented to her, Babydoll and the other girls are warriors dispatched to exotic sci-fi or fantasy locales where they face hideous beasts and win priceless treasures that inch them closer to freedom. On the latter plane, she is faced with the unpleasant reality that she accidentally shot her little sister, and has been interred in the asylum and is awaiting a lobotomy that will make her more peaceful.
The reason that I emphasize this middle plane is because during the first half of the movie it seems arbitrary. One wonders why it is even in the movie. But...by the time you reach the end, you realize that the middle reality is by far the most important one. But really, concentrating on the plot is just going to mess it up for you. Like the Matrix, you have to see it for yourself.
As far as acting, there are really only a few standouts. Abbie Cornish and Jena Malone are, as the critics have said, excellent as the tough sister duo of Sweet Pea and Rocket (some of the names seem to be actual proper names, while others seem to be titles or nicknames). Of course, they've both been fairly well-respected young actresses for a while. Emily Browning is adorable as ever, and although her character has slightly less pizazz to her than the other girls, she is clearly supposed to be the strong one, the one who keeps the rest motivated. On the male end of things, he has to wait until the very end, but Oscar Isaac gets a surprisingly strong part as both a creepy orderly, and as the flashy, sinister pimp of the brothel reality.
On the action side of things, you can't really fault the movie. Say what you will about him, but Zack Snyder has always known how to do action. He has a flashy, punchy style that blends elements of Sam Raimi (the roaming, active camera that focuses on important features in the environment), the Hong Kong greats (slow motion, balletic gunfights), and the Wachowskis (long, single takes involving complicated acrobatics and special effects). Not to mention he blends imagery and music extremely well, a trait he showed way back with Dawn of the Dead.
Not to mention, especially in the dream sequences, he has really let his inner geek out. There is an almost staggering level of genre mishmash in these scenes that will make any sci-fi/movie nut grin like a kid in a candy store. From an opening battle between Babydoll and three immense Samurai golem (one of whom wields a giant minigun), to a scene where the assault rifle-toting girls attack a fantasy castle infested with orcs, each scene is distinct and so absurd it reaches dizzying heights of awesome. Also, just to boot, I'll make a professional comment. Every movie claims it sends its stars to mini-boot camp or trains them to fight or whatever, so I pretty much ignored similar statements about Sucker Punch. However, having seen it, in my opinion as an Infantryman, the girls look damn proficient with those assault rifles. I was impressed.
Of course, the movie does have its flaws. There's plenty to think about, but at the end of the day, the realities are not tied together neatly enough. There are threads that provoke thought, but then wander off and never come to fruition, just as there are cool ideas that wind up turning out less cool than planned. Likewise, even though the brain-bending story and character twists hold up, the psychological meat of the story is a lot more flimsy. Just like the philosophical underpinnings of the Matrix movies, you are better off using the ideas as a jumping board for your own exploration of the movie, and less as treatise in itself.
In closing, it's very flawed, but once you get to the killer second half, you realize that it's got a whole lot to recommend it. It could have been better, but it IS better than a lot of what you'll get this summer, I guarantee it.