Saturday, March 26, 2011

From the Archive: "Sucker Punch" Film Review

Film Rating: F

Welcome to The Archive, a comprehensive collection of reviews dating back to 2007, originally written for The Denver Post’s YourHub.Com website and print edition!  In the archive, you’ll find hundreds of movie, DVD, Blu-Ray, and TV reviews, along with other special features.  You can access the complete Archive Collection by clicking here, and read about the archive project by clicking here. 

Continue reading after the jump to access my original review of “Sucker Punch.”

From the Jonathan R. Lack Review Archives:
“Sucker Punch”
Originally published March 26th, 2011

Last week, my friend Sean Chapman (frequent guest on The Monthly Ten podcast) and I were discussing the cinematic abomination known as Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, tearing into every miserable aspect of the film with gleeful savagery.  We eventually hit upon a disagreement; Sean adamantly believed it was the worst film he’d ever seen theatrically, and was so sure of its awfulness that, knowing full well how many more films I see in theatres than the average person, he dared me to name a cinematic experience worse than Transformers 2.  I threw out a few titles – Fool’s Gold and X-Men Origins: Wolverine are my go-to picks in these situations – but as we got into a bit of a debate, Sean managed to convince me I probably hadn’t seen a worse film in theatres than Transformers 2.  And that’s where we left things.  

Well, Sean, I now have an answer.  I have paid full admission price for a film even worse than Transformers 2.  It’s called Sucker Punch, and it is a full-on insult to humanity.  I’ve been reviewing films since I was ten.  I’ve seen plenty of crap, but this is quite possibly the most excruciating experience I’ve ever had in a theatre.  Sucker Punch is an insensitive, illogical, confusing, misogynistic, and above all, stupid mess of a ‘movie,’ one so bad that I scarcely believe that somebody, somewhere along the line, didn’t look at the film and say “we have to do something about this.”  No one could make a film this bad on accident – there are elements so horrifyingly awful that I’m more inclined to believe that director Zack Snyder has played a glorious $85 million prank on the audience than that he was actually trying to make a decent picture.  And if that’s the case, then Sucker Punch is a work of genius, a top-notch study in what makes movies bad, a pastiche of everything wrong with modern American cinema, a crash course for students of film that teaches them why things like a plot and characters are important and what happens when one ignores those crucial elements.   But that’s just me trying to make sense of things.  In truth, Sucker Punch is just one colossal, unbelievable failure.  

I’ll try to explain the “plot,” such as it is, though be warned – while my description will likely be clearer than how the film presents things, it still won’t make one lick of sense.  The basic starting point is that a nameless teenage girl, referred to as ‘Baby Doll,’ has her world torn apart when her wicked father beats her young sister to death after their mother passes away.  Baby Doll attempts to shoot her father in retaliation, but can’t bring herself to pull the trigger; in retaliation, her father sends her to a mental institution – “Lennox House” – where she is to be lobotomized when the surgeon arrives in five days’ time.

The film fumbles the ball immediately, before it gets any further than this basic exposition.  The opening scene, where Baby Doll is traumatized, is presented as a sort of grotesque music video.  There’s no dialogue, just an awful pop song that scarcely fits the imagery.  This scene is supposed to introduce us to our protagonist, to establish her troubled past and her motivations for the future so we’ll understand her as the film goes along.  It does none of these things.  Without dialogue, we learn nothing about Baby Doll – no hints of her personality, not what her mother meant to her, not what her sister meant to her, not what her relationship with her father was, etc.  Nothing.  It’s all style, and no substance, a theme the rest of the movie will follow.  But after five minutes, it doesn’t seem all that bad – the beginning is weak, yes, but there’s no reason the movie can’t get better…right? 

Wrong.  See, this is where things get confusing.  After it’s established that Baby Doll is in the mental hospital, and before we actually meet any of the other inhabitants, the place suddenly turns into a colorful brothel.  No explanation, no transition point, it’s just suddenly a brothel.  It took me a little while to figure out what was going on, but best as I can gather, the girls in the hospital all imagine the place is a brothel in order to escape from their nightmarish reality.  You heard that right – according to the world of Sucker Punch, when women feel insecure, they like to imagine themselves as sex slaves working tirelessly for abusive men.

Now the warning signs are flashing.

This layer is what we know as ‘reality’ until near the end of the film, the home base the film continually returns to.  All the women are made to dance for their clients (and do other things, of course, though the film’s shallowness doesn’t extend that far), and the first time Baby Doll dances, she retreats inside her mind to a third layer of consciousness.  Here, she wears even skimpier clothing and gets advice from a wise old man who tells her she needs to find four objects – a key, a map, a knife, and fire – in order to escape, and gives her a samurai sword and a pistol to help her on her journey (before you ask, no, I’m not making any of this up).  As a sort of ‘training’ mission, she has to fight three giant robots with her new weapons.  After defeating them, she returns to the ‘brothel’ layer of reality and learns that, when she imagines doing these fantastical things, her dancing is unbelievably enchanting (i.e. erotic).  She and the other girls decide to use the wise old man’s advice and find the objects they need to escape, using Baby Doll’s dancing to distract all the men in the brothel.  Each time Baby Doll starts to dance, they fall into another layer of consciousness and imagine themselves going on dangerous, action-packed missions in arenas like a dragon’s lair or WWII trenches to find the items.  

My immediate reaction is to compare the set-up to that of a videogame.  The film is undoubtedly arranged like one, where we have brief interludes in ‘reality’ (the brothel) that function like cut-scenes do in a videogame, followed by a CGI-fueled mission to find an object that functions as a ‘level.’  Each one of the ‘level’ scenes even starts with the wise old man laying out the objective for the women and giving them advice, just as a commander character might in a videogame.  For a solid 90 minutes, the film chugs along like this – cutscene, level, cutscene, level, wash, rinse, repeat.  It’s dull.  It’s lifeless.  It’s frustrating.  It’s pointless.  The action scenes are visually spectacular and the set-ups mildly clever, but throughout, my instinct was to pick up a controller and play along; when I realized that I couldn’t, it just infuriated me.  Nobody enjoys watching a videogame, and that’s what Sucker Punch asks us to do.

But comparing Sucker Punch to a videogame is an insult to gaming.  Most games have a plot.  Sucker Punch has a basic set-up, but it doesn’t count as a story.  Super Mario Bros. has a story.  Princess Peach has been kidnapped, and Mario’s got to save her.  Is it a good story?  Hell no.  But it’s a story, and there’s a logical reason for Mario’s plight to continue across eight worlds – every time he finds a castle, it turns out his princess is in another one.  Is it a good way to keep the story going?  No, but it’s better than “we need four items and so far we only have two.”  Mario has motivations, thin as they might be, while the characters of Sucker Punch have nothing.  They apparently want to escape the brothel.  Why?  Isn’t this the layer of reality they created for themselves to escape the mental hospital?  If they’re so desperate to escape, why’d they conjure it up in the first place?  Baby Doll, as the protagonist, should at least have motivations, maybe concerning her dead sister and mother, but the trauma that sent her to the mental institution is never again mentioned in the course of the narrative.  At least we’re reminded in Mario Bros., at the end of each world, that our hero is still searching for his princess.

As atrocious as the story is – and I haven’t even discussed the worst part yet – it’s the characters that kill the movie.  I could maybe handle the awful, nonsensical excuse for a plot and the misogynistic undertones if I had some reason to follow these characters.  The problem is, Sucker Punch doesn’t really have any characters.  It has hot chicks in skimpy outfits.  None of them have personalities, none of them have clear motivations or desires, and the writing never makes any effort to distinguish one person’s set of inane dialogue from another’s.  The problem is most apparent in Baby Doll, since she’s the protagonist; she’s not given a single line of dialogue until at least twenty minutes in, and past that point, her lines are extremely limited.  She barely talks, she hardly emotes, and her emotional trauma isn’t even part of the story, so why is she even in the movie, let alone as the main character? 

I can’t blame actress Emily Browning – she tries her hardest to do something in the role, but there’s nothing there.  All she can do is stand around and look pretty, and to her credit, she is stunningly gorgeous.  Then again, the same holds true for all of the girls.  Vanessa Hudgens and Jamie Chung don’t have anything more to do than look hot, while Abbie Cornish and Jena Malone have to look hot and do the majority of the acting.  Since the script they have to work from is terrible, their performances suffer accordingly.  But, indeed, the girls are all beautiful, and they look good dancing, fighting, and shooting. 

This is, perhaps, where Sucker Punch insults the audience the most.  I don’t know what the film’s goal was, what message it was trying to deliver, if any, but what I’m left with is a dirty, foul feeling inside, because the film amounts to little more than objectifying pretty young women for two hours straight without any rhyme or reason.  As I’ve already established, they have no personalities or motivation; there’s no logical reason for them to dress in skimpy outfits or imagine themselves in a brothel, but they do so anyway, just so us men can ogle them.  There’s a word for that.  It rhymes with bornography.  It’s what the internet is for, and it has no place in a movie theatre.  What’s so disgusting is how the film tries to present itself as something meaningful, tries to look clever in its attempts to throw these girls into multiple levels of action-packed reality.  But there’s nothing there – no substance that justifies the objectification.  You can’t even call this ‘female empowerment,’ because the women willingly choose to call reality a brothel and ‘fight’ in the most erotic – and demeaning – ways possible.  I imagine someone like Joss Whedon dying a little inside as he watches Sucker Punch tear down every tenant of feminism.  I can’t fathom how an actual woman would react. 

But wait, there’s more!  If you thought the parade of bad characters ended with the girls, you were dead wrong.  Carla Gugino, a fine actress in most circumstances, is hilariously awful as a psychiatrist with an overblown eastern-European accent that serves absolutely no purpose but to make the character wholly inorganic.  Don Draper – I mean, Jon Hamm – shows up at the end as the surgeon, and while he brings some much needed class to the proceedings, his appearance prompted me to start whacking my head against the back of my chair repeatedly, inwardly chanting to myself “why is Don Draper in this awful movie?”  But the worst actor in the movie, the person who single-handedly makes Sucker Punch unwatchable, is Oscar Isaac as ‘Blue,’ head of the mental institution.  This is the kind of bad performance that could, in due time, become legendary.  I’ll forgive Gugino and Browning and Cornish their failures by blaming it on the script, but Isaac takes things one step further, shouting every line with feverish insincerity and looking incredibly stupid while he does so.  There are not enough descriptors in the English language to describe how awful Isaac is; he made me physically uncomfortable, and the only thing that kept me from running out of the theater whenever he appeared was my feeling of professional obligation to see things through to the end.

Yet even I started to question my own motivation once the last twenty minutes rolled around.  The film returns to the true layer of reality (or at least as close as the film comes to reality), outside the brothel dimension for the finale, and this is where Sucker Punch goes from “epic misfire” to “contender for inclusion on the Wikipedia page for worst films ever made.”  Instead of the rousing, action-packed climax suggested by the preceding material, Snyder and co. decide to aim for a more thoughtful conclusion, and it’s utterly horrific.  I don’t know if the dialogue is any worse here than it was at any earlier point in the film, but there’s a hell of a lot more of it, and it’s unendurably painful. 

Worst of all, the film attempts to assign meaning to a meaningless affair by giving characters speeches that proclaim the moral of the film to the audience.  I couldn’t tell you what that moral is.  Earlier portions of the film tried to give character fleeting moments of development with laughably bad results, but these speeches are far worse.  They make no sense whatsoever, they’re horribly written and delivered, and worst of all, they insult the intelligence of everyone in the theatre.  It’s as though Snyder realized he’d made a horribly sexist, ignorant mess of a film, and tried to redeem himself by throwing together a quick dénouement.  I imagine few will be stupid enough to fall for this trick. 

The thing is, Zack Snyder is a director I respect.  300 is a great action movie; it’s not very deep or substantive, but it knows exactly what it is, and makes the absolute most of the material with strong characters, a clear, brisk narrative, fine acting, and terrific, groundbreaking visuals.  It’s the movie that put Snyder on the map.  In Watchmen, Snyder did the impossible by making a truly great film out of a book we all thought was inadaptable, utilizing the same visual flair and eye for inspired casting he demonstrated on 300.  It’s a truly wonderful film.  As such, I’ve been looking forward to Sucker Punch for a long time – it’s his first original project, the first movie where we’d get to see his ‘vision’ unfiltered. 

As it turns out, it’s a vision I never wanted to see.  Without any restraints, Snyder made something nonsensical and fetishistic, and I can’t help but look at scenes from his earlier works under this new light.  In the book Watchmen, the sex scene between Silk Spectre and Night Owl is an important and clever turning point for the characters, and delivers one of Alan Moore’s key metaphors.  In the film, Snyder made the scene more graphic with plenty of feminine nudity.  At the time, I assumed that was just the natural result of turning comic book panels into film – you have to show more, right?  Now, I can’t help but think Snyder used that excuse to indulge in the kind of fetishistic objectification that defines Sucker Punch.  I’ve even lost enthusiasm for his future work, such as the new Superman film – before seeing Sucker Punch, he seemed like the perfect director for the project, and I was ecstatic he landed the job.  Now, I’m worried.

I can’t do Sucker Punch justice with mere words.  I’ve done my best to explain what it’s like to sit through this travesty, but even in four pages, I can’t hit upon everything, can’t describe what it’s like to see a film fail so utterly.  Even the admittedly impressive visuals and set-pieces are constantly undermined by the writing (the action is totally lifeless if the characters don’t matter) or the musical selection (thanks to its use of awful pop songs, I submit Sucker Punch as my explanation for why I detest modern music).  Sucker Punch has to be seen to be believed, though I wouldn’t advise anyone to go to the trouble of actually watching the film.  Sean will just have to take my word for it that this movie is actually worse than Transformers 2, because there are few people I would wish Sucker Punch on – though forcing Michael Bay to watch it would be the perfect comeuppance for Revenge of the Fallen.    

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