To say that critics have turned on Sucker Punch is like saying a pitbull turns on a raw piece of Porterhouse. It doesn’t quite convey the savage glee of the mauling. It has inspired the kind of histrionic pile up reviews that cause no end of temple rubbing and inspired me to start blogging in the first place and not just because I’m the internet’s foremost Zack Snyder apologist™.
Let’s get this out of the way. Sucker Punch isn’t perfect. More than anything it feels like a movie that is a good two drafts away from being the movie it could have and should have been. Stronger threads between the real world and the two levels of “Baby Doll’s” madness could have created a film as pleasing as storytelling as spectacle. As is Snyder devalues his own storytelling currency. As I wrote before I think Snyder’s strongest attribute as a director is his inability to wink. Well, he still doesn’t wink here, but he makes it far too easy to remove yourself.
Still if Sucker Punch isn’t perfect, what it is is an epic audacious dare. As operatic a slice of id as Alan Parker’s The Wall or the collected works of Russ Meyer. A cheerfully adolescent, delirious, gleeful prank as openly fetishistic as any of Tarantino’s movies. A film that does donuts in the parking lot while blasting "Sweet Emotion"in a muscle car made of studio money, its middle finger raised joyfully in the air. A film that actually has the balls to use Jefferson’s Airplane’s “White Rabbit” unironically. Feed your head indeed.
The story follows Baby Doll who is committed to a nightmare mental asylum where she will be lobotomized in five days by Jon Hamm (in a cameo as effective as it is inexplicable). To protect herself she goes down a layer into madness imagining the asylum as a bordello and occasionally descends a deeper layer into “missions” which represents her escape plans (and truth in criticism could have done a much better job in representing her). The insurmountable flaw of Sucker Punch is that those three levels feel completely divorced from one another. Once Baby Doll falls into the first fantasy we never see the asylum again and though we understand that the missions are supposed to correspond to what is happening in the real world we’re never given any idea of how the hell that would be possible.
The film’s fundamental problems of storytelling are made up for by the sheer charisma of the enterprise. This is Snyder following his own personal rabbit hole as deep as it goes and I have to imagine this will end up being the purest expression of his work. Luckily he has a cast game enough to follow him along. Emily Browning in particular does extremely good work, a strong enough center to keep this improbable circus from falling apart. Jena Malone is also particularly charismatic and if nothing else give Snyder credit for being the one to wake up and go “Oh yeah Scott Glenn is awesome!”
The charisma extends to the imagery; soldiers in trenchcoats who bleed steam, giant samurai with masks that borrow Malcolm McDowell’s phallic nose and cities fallen into ash. As has been noted these are all images much more likely to be found inside the skull of Zack Snyder then in the mind of a twenty year old girl in the 1950’s. But once you accept that, once you realize that the fifties and girl power trappings are just an extension of that fact rather then the box around them, Sucker Punch becomes an altogether different experience.
So call it empty (it’s not) call it Side Scroller: The Movie (it kind of is, though Snyder continues to be one of the few modern action directors who cares about little things like "Geography" and "Coherence") but don’t call it timid. It’s like a foul ball that sails out of the stadium past the parking lot and shatters a shop window three blocks away. Perhaps it has not succeeded in its aims, but all failures should be this spectacular.