Film review – Sucker Punch (2011)

Sucker Punch: Baby Doll (Emily Browning)
Baby Doll (Emily Browning)

This may well be the film that goes down in film history as epitomising the very worst trends in popular culture of this era. There is nothing new or unusual about loud, dumb, vacuous films that rely on the veneer of excitement to placate uncritical audiences rather than providing anything of real substance. However, Sucker Punch is so excessively bad in so many ways that it feels like a sort of cultural tipping point for mass-marketed mediocrity has been achieved. Writer/director/producer Zack Snyder, who made the impressive remake of Dawn of the Dead, the graphic novel adaptations 300 and Watchmen and computer animation Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga’Hoole, appears to have simply thrown every randomly ‘cool’ idea he had into this film. The result is almost like a stream of consciousness but not in the surreal tapping-into-the-marvellous-world-of-dreams kind of way, but in the stuck-listening-to-somebody-describe-a-dream kind of way.

Sucker Punch doesn’t even feel like a film. It feels like an extended trailer for a computer game and this is largely due to the absolutely flat and lifeless action sequences that are so crucial to the film’s success (or lack thereof) as an action/fantasy. The increasing reliance on CGIs instead of anything tangible has been an increasing trend over the past two decades but so rarely have CGIs been as vapid as they are in Sucker Punch. There is no tension in the action and being so obviously generated on a computer makes the artifice especially tedious. The actors supposedly underwent substantial training for these scenes but the heavy computerised manipulation of their bodies renders that training almost useless. Admittedly the backgrounds of the four major fantasy sequences that anchor the film look impressive for a couple of seconds but like every other element in this film, the art direction is so conceptually underdeveloped it fails to sustain interest.

Sucker Punch: Sweet Pea (Abbie Cornish)
Sweet Pea (Abbie Cornish)

It doesn’t help that Snyder’s trademark use of slow motion and dramatic sound effects to accentuate everything comes across as so absurdly pompous and pretentious. If Sucker Punch was truly an inventively deranged and carefree film then it could have been silly fun, but it takes itself seriously and arguing otherwise sounds like Tommy Wiseau’s retrospective claims that The Room was really meant to be a black comedy all along. It’s one thing for a film to have corny dialogue that makes audience members involuntarily laugh but Sucker Punch somehow manages to unintentionally cause sniggers by its music cues and the way it uses costumes. Not that the use of music remains funny for long as the songs are either horrible, used horribly (warning to Björk fans) or are horrible covers of great songs (extra double warning to Pixies fans).

The final example of how Sucker Punch encapsulates the worst aspects of mainstream entertainment is the extent and gusto in which it embraces the porn aesthetic. For a start, this is not a girl-power revenge film but a film about vulnerable women trying to survive and escape from their tormentors. They only get to fight back in their heads and even then that involves a lot of sacrifice and martyrdom. In the real world of the mental asylum the film is set in (and even the fantasy world of the brothel) they are simply victims and remain so. The blasé and flippant depiction of the violence and sexual violence used against the women is an almost titillating detail used to assist the faux gothic visual flourishes. It’s like making a stripper wear a corset and then claiming she’s doing burlesque.

Sucker Punch: Baby Doll (Emily Browning)
Baby Doll (Emily Browning)

And the degree to which this film visually engages in the pornografication of women, including women made to look very young, is even worse. It would be wonderful to believe that the over-the-top school girl fetish outfits are some kind of heavily ironic statement but the repeated up-skirt shots and scenes revelling in the girls’ suffering makes it as subversive as wearing a t-shirt saying ‘Porn Star’ or having Playboy bunny car seat covers. Besides, even if you do think the combination and endorsement of sexualised and infantile imagery in a PG film is nothing but good ol’ harmless fun for the kids to enjoy, here’s the thing: none of it is remotely sexy. It’s embarrassing and try-hard.

For a film to be this full of over-the-top stylistic devices and an almost random assortment of fanboy-baiting ingredients (steampunk WWI German soldiers! a really big dragon!) it is truly remarkable that Sucker Punch is such a tedious experience. However, this artless and soulless film is one of the most depressing things made in the past decade.


Thomas Caldwell, 2011

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  1. Seeing it this weekend, looks like a bit of fun.
    This ‘review/rant’ came off as an over-thought pissy whinge session.

  2. @Andrew Buckle – I hope you’re seeing it for free and not paying for it. Otherwise, you’ll just be encouraging them!

    @T.King – LOL! But did it really? Or are you just so salivating with anticipation about seeing this film that you simply hated what I had to say? Either way, I apologise for upsetting you.

    @Nick – I actually suspect that Snyder may do a good job with Superman. I did really like Dawn of the Dead and Watchmen so I don’t think he’s necessarily a bad director.

    @The Hairy Pony – Clem Bastow’s review is sensational and worth linking to right here. (Warning that T.King better not read it as it will make them even more upset!)

  3. bugger. I was hoping that the other reviewers were wrong – ah well – I’ll just sit here and hope that the actors did it for fun :)

  4. I absolutely loved this movie. To me, I love a movie that makes me THINK. I can’t recall a movie that actually prompted me to have a deep conversation immediately following the movie. What I find disturbing about the negative reviews of this movie is this: NOW…if a movie is not easily digestible into a quick and easy fix, it’s deemed bad. Personally, I love a more cerebral movie. Zach Snyder has done a brilliant job and this movie is worthy of Best Picture nomination for next year at the Oscars. I know others that are knocking the film will consider me NUTS. However, these are probably the same people that thought Blair Witch Project was a masterpiece. Hmm…consider the source.

  5. @Thomas Caldwell
    The fact I’m sitting cross armed and scowling in front my laptop might suggest you’re probably right.

    I really want to like this and it’s begining to sound like The Last Airbender all over again, I ignored all the naysayers (there were a lot) and saw it anyway. I wanted to cry that movie was so bad and I was so let down, been looking forward to this for over a year and the idea of it failing so completely is a saddening prospect.

    I will still see it, I guess I just hope you’re wrong. Much easier for me to dismiss you as talking out your ass…. I guess.

  6. Saw it for free, and not even worth the time. What an overblown and pointless mess. With zero plot the film is a series of music videos and video game levels that are so disconnected, and have no stakes that they tire very quickly. It then tries to tie in a deep existential awakening at the end, which wasn’t apparent anywhere in the film. I agree with everything Thomas. People, don’t waste your money on this despicable addition to the artistic realm.

  7. Well, I just watched this, not sure what to expect, and I think it’s a work of genius and, reading reviews around the web, I think two things are going on with the reviewers. One is that many of them were overwhelmed by its plot not being entirely straightforward (the same kind of people who sneer down their noses at “simple” stories) and secondly there is a disturbing puritanism on the rise.

    Snyder isn’t politically correct. He was carpeted for a pro-western civilisation implication in 300 (and a gay villain). Reviewers of Watchmen rubbished it by portraying it as endless shots of a blue penis (ooh) and blew the rape scene- essential to the plot- out of all proportion. Now with this movie, the rectally enbroomhandled are on the latest puritan bandwagon, “pornification”. Because sexy women are, y’know, evil or something.

    ***Spoiler warning***

    What is so satisfying about this movie is the sucker punch. You spend the whole movie seeing the girls- particuarly Baby Doll- as unstoppable heroines, and then BAM, that ghastly resolution for her. You’re expecting a happy ending for Baby Doll, and you don’t get one. Instead of concentrating on that daring plot, we have reviewer after reviewer on their little high horses complaining about thighs and a bit of cleavage. Presumably because this movie’s got no naked blue guy to make them feel funny and upset inside.

    Snyder’s a great movie maker, but he’s not PC[1], so either get over that or don’t go watch his movies expecting a morality tale designed to reconfirm your moralisms. He’s pushing boundaries and actually being challenging; something that many people pay lip service too, but who really only want other people “challenged”, not themselves.

    Frankly, anybody who can’t love a movie with Great War zombies powered by steam and clockwork just has no soul.

    [1] Post Calvinist, that is, which is what the new moralism boils down to.

  8. @Ian B – are your comments aimed at my review or just a general response to all negative reviews for this film? I ask because I never made any comment about the complexity or simplicity of the plot and I discussed a whole lot of issues other than what you describe as the non PC elements.

    (In fact, I find the term PC useless and meaningless as it’s simply a lazy way to lump a whole lot of complex values in together so that they can be collectively mocked, criticised and dismissed – usually by people who resent not being about to make sexist, racist or homophobic jokes anymore.)

    ***Spoiler warning***

    So, anyway, I think there’s a whole lot of things wrong with Sucker Punch and for the record, I really liked Watchmen. Also, I have no problem with sexy women. I just don’t find girls made to look very young and very vulnerable, dressed in very unimaginative and clichéd outfits, who only get to be heroes in their imagination and are punished through death and/or sexual abuse for not wanting to be forced into prostitution or lobotomised, that sexy.

  9. are your comments aimed at my review or just a general response to all negative reviews for this film?

    A bit of both to be honest, in response to the general tenor of the reviews, including this one, which can be characterised as being heavily predicated on moral judgement. Many of them have misunderstood the plot entirely. That is not true of yours, I agree, so I apologise for venting a general frustration with the reviewers on your blog.

    But I think this movie is getting mangled through reviewers’ (morally inspired) preconceptions. I think there is something really daring and challenging, in a genuine sense, to on the one hand serving us with sexy cliches and then slapping us with the bleak framing story. It’s like people are going, “ooh, sexy girls, so it must be porn, but it’s not arousing, so it isn’t successful” without giving it more thought.

    (In fact, I find the term PC useless and meaningless as it’s simply a lazy way to lump a whole lot of complex values in together so that they can be collectively mocked, criticised and dismissed – usually by people who resent not being about to make sexist, racist or homophobic jokes anymore.)

    Not at all. Sure, there are dim bulbs complaining about PC on those terms. But without writing a book here, in the deep analysis it is a way of looking at the world entirely through a moral filter. Everything within the world is analysed on the basis of whether it fits an approved moral structure. If it does not, it is damned automatically. It requires that storytelling only presents certain “educational” messages and that characters only be presented in certain ways. We are all familiar with the previous forms of it, for instance under the Hay Code (every villain must get his come-uppance, people kissing must have at least one foot on the floor, etc) and this latest manifestation is becoming similarly restrictive.

    Snyder’s films, particualrly this one, are being reviewed not as movies but on a moral basis. Go over to Rotten Tomatoes and read through all those negatives, and you see the same criticisms over and over again. The critics are morally offended and sound suspiciously like Victorian worthies fulminating over gratuitous ankle shots.

    So I hope people will have a long hard think about how they’re viewing the world, and whether maybe they’ve lapsed into an eerie puritanism masquerading as a liberalism. And dovetailing from that…

    …one of the most disturbing parts of the movie (in a good sense) is the “Ring 0” setting. Institutions like the one the characters are confined in were used, during previous outbreaks of puritanism, often to incarcerate not the mentally ill but the “delinquent”. Young girls who had broken the intensely conformist moral code of the times. Their sexual behaviours- quite normal sexual behaviours- were perceived to be mental disorders in the stifling 1950s (just as homosexuality was). We must take enormous care- in an age when again millions of youngsters are being diagnosed as disordered- not to fall again into the same trap. I think this is part of the reason for this setting in the movie. The girls are not mad in the first place. They just didn’t fit in.

    So anyway, sorry to go on so long. But let’s try to make an effort to judge movies as movies, and not as morality tales. Girls in short skirts don’t appeal to everyone, but neither are they dangerous.

  10. No need to apologise for the length of your comment – it contains some very interesting food for thought.

    Basically, I think this film is bad art and bad entertainment and I’ve explained why in my review. You’ve provided a really strong and valid counter-argument that I’m really pleased to have here so thank you.

    I think the morality question is a good one and I have been fascinated by the extremities in which this film has been debated by some people as both a piece of misogyny or as some kind of ironic post-modern feminist statement. I think it’s neither but I do still have issues with it. It’s not to do with any degree of puritanism though and I’ve even recently written a soon to be published article arguing the case for more sex in cinema!

    Anyway, again, I’m grateful for you providing those very interesting alternative perspectives to my issues.

  11. Let me say, I loved 300 and Watchmen. But Sucker Punch lacked, well punch. Talk about a bore, who would think that a fantasy film featuring good looking females could turn out so bad? I hear Zack Snyder is adapting the book Hellbound by Tim Hawken for his next movie. I sincerely hope not, if his latest word is anything to go by, I’d hate him to ruin it.

  12. Your review is the most insightful I have read in relation to this film. You description of it being a ‘cultural tipping point for mass-marketed mediocrity’ is GOLD! After returning from this movie, I could not help but think that this movie is indicative of everything that is wrong in modern art -all style, no substance. Sucker Punch has no soul and it equates sex with violence to an ugly and confusing degree.

  13. See I have to disagree with you about this movie. I recently went and saw it with some friends and we all LOVED it. I agree the story was not much, but the movie was not designed to be an epic storyline. It was designed to make you THINK.

    The main point of the story is that even though Baby Doll was under such harsh conditions (the mental institution, abusive step-father, corrupt orderly.), she looked into her mind and found a place were she could feel safe. When this place was not adequate she went deeper, and discovered the things she needed to survive the mental ordeal she was going through. These were represented by the four items the girls needed to find. These ‘tools’ are what she used to cope with her institutionalization.

    I very much enjoyed how she used people from the mental institution as the characters in her fantasy world. (Fun Fact: In dreams and fantasies, your mind will always conjure up a face you have seen before. Your mind will always base people off of what you have already seen.) The only problem I had with this movie was that in fact, that she was dropped in to ‘Paul’s Mental Institution for the Criminally Insane that are under 25 and smoking hot.’

    I think that the scenes where they are dressed rather provocatively and are being extremely violent, gives them a sense of power. They use their bodies to control the men, (The Mayor, The Club Owner, The Chef) and the men (In Baby Doll’s final level of her defense mechanism) are actually subservient to the females.

    The only other problem with this movie I had, is where did she get the man who aided them? As I mentioned earlier, your mind can not create a face, only regurgitate one. So where did this guy come from? That goes un-answered in the film which is disappointing.

  14. After reading a series of polarized reviews I’m left with the the impression that Sucker Punch is something like the film equivalent of “Piss Christ”. There are going to be people who look at it and say “Way to be ‘edgy'” *roll eyes, pantomime masturbation*. If you look at it closer you begin to understand that a work supersedes it’s face value.
    Andres Serrano did not take his photograph to attack religion, but many people will never get past the fact that he put a crucifix in piss.
    Zack Snyder did not make his film to be a misogynistic ass, but many people will never get past the fact that he had scantily clad women in fantasy scenarios.

  15. Having going in thinking this would be the “most depressing thing in the past decade”, watching it right now with five other dudes joking on it I realize its actually a blast. Camp, Thomas. Camp.

  16. (this comment has been edited by the moderator)

    The movie is simply evil… [it is] the evil in western societies that had people involuntarily lobotomized (disproportionately women btw). And [people who are entertained by this movie] dislike being repressed by *PC* and morality. Newsflash: aesthetics is morality.

    btw, the stepfather wouldn’t have had to bribe the orderly to fake the doctors signature to have the girl lobotomized… in the real world he could have had her lobotomized entirely legally (the Kennedy’s daughter is probably the most famous case).

  17. I saw it today and thought it was fantastic on so many levels. To me you sound like a classical musician criticising jazz (i.e. appreciating technical elements of what goes on but completely missing the point).

  18. I feel more like a ’70s punk fan who doesn’t like contemporary emo or pop punk bands, despite being told by fans that they’re like, you know, really deep man.

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