Sunday, April 03, 2011

Yet Another Sucker Punch Movie Review

After reading a lot of negative, and sometimes positive, review of Sucker Punch, I thought I'd see the film for myself. To tell you the truth, I didn't really hear about the film until a co-worker mentioned it last year, which I then appropriately forgot (the trailer didn't really interest me). I don't know why the genre community suddenly started paying attention to the movie. Is it because it's Zack Snyder? Is it because of the all-female casting, an attempt to create the opposite of the misogynistic 300 by the same director? Or is it simply because it's a genre film? (And if it's the last case, why are people still discussing the film, unlike I Am Number Four which is mostly ignored and forgotten.)

There's a part of me that thinks Sucker Punch was a big failure in public relations and marketing. While it's not mentioned as a tag-line or a slogan, part of the perception of Sucker Punch was that it would be a women-empowering movie when it's murky at best (as I will elaborate later). To quote The Rejectionist, Accessories That Do Not, In Fact, Inherently Constitute A Strong Female Character:
Attraction to danger, bare midriff, bazooka, boyfriend, bustier, chastity belt, combat boots, computer-hacking skills, cussing, dresses, drinking, girlfriend, great physical strength sans unsightly muscular development, foul mouth, heels, leather pants, leg hair, lipstick, no leg hair, no lipstick, pants, pink, princess pony, promiscuity, ruffles, sparkles, sultriness, superpowers, sword, tattoos, witch lineage.
Sadly, Sucker Punch is easily a third of that list, and it's all too easy to create an all-female cast that is more of a fetish rather than subversion, in the same way that two lesbians kissing in film is way more acceptable than two gay men making out. That's not to say Sucker Punch is not without its merits (Teresa Jusino gives an argument here and here), but it doesn't really drastically veer away from the Hollywood norm. The ire of many fans, and this reviewer, is expecting something more, when it wasn't clear that Sucker Punch was simply action-movie mediocrity.

If you leave your brain at the door, it's decent as an action flick. The fight choreography and cinematography has its fair share of high points and moments where you realize that some sequences are better left off animated than presented as live-action (even if animation is actually involved in said sequences). There's also the video game aesthetics which, to Snyder's credit, works to a certain extent. What I do love about the film is the musical beats and how the injection of the music is perfectly timed.

From a story and agenda perspective however, there are various problems, some minor which could be solved with prudent editing, while others are way off base.

The beginning is fine; it's not grandiose but it's not horrible either. The sequence introducing how our heroine, Baby Doll, ends up in the asylum, is competent. The narrator felt too didactic for me but I could live with it. It's also the opening that we discover Snyder's ambition as he attempts to successfully layer the story: we switch from the asylum (reality) to the brothel (Baby Doll's analog of the asylum) to outright fantastical worlds (a deeper level of Baby Doll's subconscious). It's a conceit that works initially but falters the longer the film goes on (which is to say it could have worked but Snyder drops the ball). I have no problem with the asylum-brothel connection until the ending, in which it becomes didactic. The story could have ended with Baby Doll's lobotomy but instead, we get this gravitas that villains must eventually pay for their crimes (I think this was already implied so its inclusion just makes the film condescending) hence the arrest of the main antagonist, Blue Jones. Worse, Sweet Pea gets an epilogue, which is unnecessary, and the generosity of the bus driver stretches credulity, although I understand the thematic reasons for his inclusion.

Baby Doll entering an imaginary world whenever she dances--and makes for a good adventure--is a brilliant gimmick, but the problem is that it happens too many times and becomes formulaic. By the time we get to the scene with the chef, I just wanted to get it over with. I also feel that Snyder was shackled by this conceit: it worked the first three times but by the time we get to the dance in the kitchen, it feels forced and contrived. There's some interesting moments there--such as what happens when the song stops playing--but for the most part, that last scene was strained (gee, dancing in front of the chef to grab one of his knives doesn't feel out of place...).

Baby Doll's imaginary world is also not without its faults. I don't mind the genre mashing, from steampunk Nazis to high fantasy orcs, but there are certain elements that are jarring and break the theme. The first is Baby Doll's initial dream sequence: she ends up in what seems like a Japanese monastery and it screamed orientalism to me. What's worse is that the monk that's giving her advice is played by a white male, which is anachronistic. Again, thematically, I understand why Snyder thought this was a good idea: the same actor plays the general in the later fantasy sequences after all. But an old, white man acting as a seer in a Japanese setting? Sorry, doesn't work. As far as agenda goes, this would have been a good moment to include more female characters. Why must Baby Doll's source of insight be male? Why couldn't it have been a female character, especially since the important people in her life are women (whether it's her mother or her sister). Heck, it's Madame Vera Gorski who initially mentions "these are your tools" (although I find that problematic in the brothel setting as it's less subversion and more on accepting the terms of men) which is later echoed by the white old man. And Madame Gorski, towards the end, who breaks out of her own chains and "saves" Baby Doll, so it would make more sense that it would be Madame Gorski giving Baby Doll advice. (Of course another actress/character could have played the role as well.)

What's interesting with Baby Doll's imaginary world is that Snyder intentionally creates antagonists that aren't human: they're either robots or "monsters" rather than human beings. It begs the question, what is the message and intent of Snyder here? Is it maintaining the "innocence" of Baby Doll and her companions? (And Baby Doll as a character study is sadly still conformist; the innocent who, until the very end of the film, retains her virginity.) I'm not outright condemning Snyder here, but I am wondering what is his thematic intent, as I still don't know the answer and it's still vague at this point.

Characterization is a mixed bag. Men here are villains, no questions asked. Perhaps the only exception is Baby Doll's general. Madame Goski has an interesting story arc and this is very much her story as it is Baby Doll's. She is constrained by Blue Jones and there are moments when she rebels; it's by the end that she finally wrests control and comes into her own. The five-piece "team" is actually composed of three genuine characters: Baby Doll, Sweet Pea, and Rocket. The movie focuses on these three and Sweet Pea and Rocket's relationship feels organic and genuine, perhaps to a fault that I'm familiar with story trope that it was no surprise when one of them dies. (It also wasn't a surprise for me who ended up saving who in the end, so I'm not sure whether that's clever seeding or Snyder being predictable.) Amber and Blondie feel like they existed for the plot. I mean Blondie is the worst: her existence is solely to act as reluctant traitor (at least Amber gets to steal a lighter and pick up a knife). There's no further depth with her, aside from the occasional snide remark. As much as I enjoy the presence of a non-white actress, Amber fills the niche of what used to go to black characters in TV/film such as Winston in The Ghostbusters or Panthro in Thundercats: she's the driver. Other than that, nothing remarkable really. As a fan of Super Sentai (Power Rangers), I know it's difficult to give justice to five people in such a short span of time, but yeah, the last two characters is clearly a big failure of the film.

Sucker Punch has some interesting attempts and concepts but various shortcomings of the film--whether it's due to Snyder's own failings or hampered by Hollywood politics--makes it fall short of its potential. It's not a film without value and I could have enjoyed this film more if I shut down my critical thinking skills, but when viewing Sucker Punch from a certain perspective, I can understand the disappointment.

1 comment:

Arrgh said...

I stopped reading at "misogynistic 300". I'm sick of PC drivel.