Before Sucker Punch, writer-director Zack Snyder was always tethered, at least somewhat, to someone else’s vision. This isn’t uncommon in modern Hollywood, where children’s games are the unlikely fodder for wannabe blockbusters, nor is it necessarily problematic. So I don’t bring this up and some underhanded means to condemn what he’s done before, but to note that Sucker Punch represents the first pure expression of the ideas that rattle around inside his head, crashing into each other like rampaging viruses. To some degree, he was beholden to other creators with Dawn of the Dead, 300, Watchmen, even Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga’Hoole. With the two comic book adaptations, he demonstrated full awareness of that debt by often appropriating whole panels from the original stories, transforming them into big screen images that moved in aching slow motion, as if they were liberated from their still form only reluctantly. Sucker Punch is all him, though, and it’s like undistilled awfulness poured into a tall, dirty glass.
The movie stars Emily Browning as a character referred to in the credits only as Babydoll, which already provides some insight as to where Snyder’s lurid mind has settled. She lives in a household with a sexually abusive stepfather, a man depicted with such a dearth of taste or restraint that it’s wonder that Snyder didn’t just call up George Lucas and ask for permission to put Jabba the Hutt into a dirty t-shirt and insert him into the proceedings. When a tragic accident occurs (all presented in grinding, glossy slow motion, of course), Babydoll is shipped off to an insane asylum where some greased palms ensure that she’ll be wheeled into the lobotomy room at the earliest opportunity, therefore wiping away any recollection of her stepfather’s misdeeds. From there, as best as I can tell, she fantasizes that she’s actually a newly settled resident in some odd business that’s a combination cabaret and brothel, everyone around her in the asylum now recast as cohorts and adversaries in the bawdy burlesque house. There she becomes quickly renowned for her dancing, which is never shown as Snyder instead uses those moment to plunge deeper into her subconscious, where she and the other young woman she’s met engage in rotting Technicolor battles with bizarro, bazooka-wielding samurais with Blue Meanie faces or steampunk German zombie soldiers.
In these fantasies within a fantasy, it’s as if Snyder took the ludicrously fearsome soldiers from 300 and changed them into nubile young woman decked out in fetishistic schoolgirl uniforms. Given the structure of the story, I suspect that Snyder thinks this is all ever so empowering, a video game influenced version of Joss Whedon putting astounding reservoirs of strength into the little blonde girl who’s usually the most helpless victim in a horror flick. Instead, it comes across as little more than a prolonged confession of arrested adolescence, an admission that he still gets off on the same hypersexualized mayhem that he presumably once doodled onto the pages of his high school spiral notebook. The whole film would make more sense if there were faint but clear parallel blue lines cutting horizontally across the screen and maybe a few heavily penciled heavy metal band logos hovering at the edges of the image.
Everything about the film is a total embarrassment: the florid imagery that looks like what the band Nazareth might have come up with for their album covers had they been raised on World of Warcraft; the procession of astoundingly atrocious cover songs that comment on the action in the most obvious ways; the acting that is either understandably detached or crassly cartoonish. That Snyder slows most of it down, theoretically so it can be lasciviously savored, only makes it more painful to watch. If he let things run at normal speed, it would probably be over in about half the time. That would have been about right for me. I only lasted until just past the one hour mark.