Warning, this review contains spoilers – although to be honest they’re that well signposted that they might as well be labelled “Things that are so bloody apparent in the first ten minutes that you might as well hand out cards with ending on to all patrons and save their time in watching this train wreck”. Yes, Sucker Punch is not merely bad, bad is not a strong enough word. Sucker Punch is truly fucking awful.
Now, cards on the table – I’ve liked Zack Snyder’s previous films. Dawn of the Dead was a smart remake of what is rightly seen a minor classic, and both 300 and Watchmen indicated that with at least a good source he could turn out a guilty pleasure and something that was a genuine surprise as well. I had hopes that Sucker Punch (his first film to be based on an original idea of his) would fall firmly in the guilty pleasure category and the adverts certainly sold it as that. I expected scenes of girls kicking seven shades of shit out of faceless bad guys in a variety of fantasy settings. The framing device (trapped in an asylum) sounded as if it may have legs as well – unfortunately all of these hopes were out of the window within twenty minutes.
If twenty minutes into a film your thoughts are moving to “Well at least the soundtrack is good” you know a film isn’t going to be anything approaching a masterpiece. If ten minutes later that one consolation has also gone out of the window (there are some truly awful cover versions in this film – more later) then you may well have a contender for the worst film of the year.
Yes, it’s April. Yes, it’s that bad.
The majority of the problems come down to the script. The two framing devices to the action sequences (which are the selling point of the film) are so disconnected from the rest of the film as to render it nonsensical. The “main” protagonist (and I use the quotations because it soon becomes apparent that she isn’t – not so much sign posted as a billboard) recreates the asylum as a bordello in order to fashion her escape. Within this she further fashions a second reality where her actions enable that escape – except the effects within these two fantasy worlds are never shown within the real word of the asylum and thus we can never truly invest in them. The links between the first two worlds sort of make sense (but are part of the problem), but the third world (whilst allowing for the action sequences) is so disconnected that it feels almost like another film (or three films, there are no apparent links between these sequences to make it seem like a unified world) has wandered in unannounced. The result is a mess.
There is a kernel of a good idea here, but it is the first framing device that creates the problem. Thinking about it afterwards the removal of the bordello sequences would solve the problem, as would the addition of a sympathetic character within the asylum (there is one, but her nature with regards this is revealed so late in the day as to be meaningless) could make it work. Instead of having the protagonist retreat into a fantasy world of her own construction the sympathetic character could draw her into it as a means of release. Is she being trained to fight on an alien world by the asylum or is it all fantasy? It’s a much simpler story and one that would work much better in the context of the rest of the film.
So that’s the script – now the direction.
300 was essentially a long music video that happened to have a plot. The aesthetics suited it to a tee, here instead it removes a crucial aspect from the film – threat (although there is a clear threat throughout the film, one I’ll again return to). At no point did I feel that any of the protagonists were in danger of losing their lives (or minds), rather they were going through the motions in another set piece within an expensive music video. Threat is the key to any action film. We always know that Bond will escape, the interest is in how he will. Here we know the answer – five minutes of slow motion footage in which the girls shoot and slice their way through masses (whilst showing a requisite number of panty shots) with nary a scrape. This lack of tension also prevents any character development (or character full stop) – there aren’t really any memorable characters in the film, and those that exist don’t help with the whole sign-posting issue.
Another contributing factor to the lack of threat is the old bugbear of using CGI to fill in the cracks. Snyder used the green screen approach almost exclusively on 300, but there at least there was a sense of weight (and heavy stylisation removed the need for photo-real) to the proceedings. Here instead everything (and everybody) is weightless to the point of absurdity, no more noticeable than a number of sequences where CGI stands in for actors mid air to the point where you just feel like pointing at the scene and screaming fake.
Indeed the only real sense of threat within the film comes from what can only be described as “Rape as a means of control”. To my count there are five attempted rapes / prelude to rape in the film (four of children) that are quiet implicit in what is going on, and yet only one of the perpetrators is seen to receive any form of punishment (although this occurs after the closing credit, rather than within the film itself). At least two of these attempts are filmed in a manner that reduces them merely to angst ridden periods in a bad Goth video and the perpetrator is never shown as being punished or any implication of punishment in the future.
Side note: More worryingly there is no mention of this made in the BBFC’s extended information on the film, and two friends whom I bumped into afterwards commented that they were surprised how rape-y the film was given its 12 certificate.
Likewise, whilst I expected the film (as a guilty pleasure) to have a slight fetish element in a similar fashion to something like Kill Bill (where it’s a clear nod to earlier films) or Death Proof, here it exists merely as a means of including more CGI panty shots (there are a worrying number). One character even comments about this, but the issue is so quickly brushed under the carpet that any claims by the director that it’s ironic commentary must be ignored.
Add to this my usual issues with pacing (all over the place) and what emerges is less a film but rather a series of extended music video / computer game adverts linked together with the slimmest of plots and directed with an eye more to just throwing as much at the screen as possible rather than to try to create a narrative.
I thought there was the possibility of at least one saving grace, the soundtrack for the first twenty minutes is superb, including a number of good covers (in a similar vein to Moulin Rouge, a film it very much wants to be a high octane version of but completely misses what made it so good – having a soul). However even this is jettisoned when Jefferson Airplane’s “White Rabbit” turns up to be ritually murdered (but gets off lightly compared to the complete massacre of “Tomorrow Never Knows” that turns up later) by a director who seems to be using it in too literal a sense (see The Game for how to use it).
The moral of all of this is Snyder is better at using someone else’s material as a starting point rather than trying to establish his own mythos. His strength seems to be in taking an established story and pushing it to its logical conclusion. Here he tries the same, but because he is the architect of the world there are no boundaries for him. Warner Bros had trusted them with another planned Superman reboot after this, but they must be getting cold feet given the poor box office. It’s a pity in some respects as he may have been suited for doing a straight down the middle Superman film (as much as I loved Singer’s reboot, sometimes it didn’t feel like Superman) but it may be difficult to trust him after a misstep like this.
The short version; Possibly the worst major studio release since Transformers 2 (and possibly worse than that was), with crippling plot & direction issues. Flatly acted with no characterisation and a worrying attitude towards rape.
Avoid like the plague.