I should have hated this movie. I saw it under not the best circumstances. I decided to see it at the 34th Street AMC, mostly because it had the most convenient showtime and partly because it's across the street from one of my favorite breakfast places (one of the few places in NYC that serves grits). I was going to go all out and see it in IMAX. It was a matinee, so it wasn't ridonkulously expensive. But the theater turned out to be one of an alarming number of "fake" IMAX theaters, i.e., theaters with slightly-larger-than-normal screens that for some reason are allowed to use the IMAX brand name. Also, they gave us 3D glasses, and I spent the first 40 minutes of the movie trying to keep them on my face before discovering that THE MOVIE IS NOT IN 3D. Shame on you, AMC 34th Street.
This movie is, by all empirical standards, not a good movie. It has huge, HUGE narrative issues. Other folks will find many other flaws, but I think at least some of those are clever subversions. Nordling of Ain't It Cool News calls this a "kitchen sink" movie, wherein a filmmaker throws all of his passion and resources into a project in the hopes that this will be his/her definitive work. Those movies rarely turn out to be anything but hot messes, and Sucker Punch is no exception. This is a movie with big ideas, ideas that are tragically too big for the story in its current form. I think it might have fared better as a two-parter. Preferably with a different writer.
The basic setup is fairly simple. Our heroine, played by Lemony Snicket's Emily Browning, has just lost her mother, and her conniving stepfather is furious that the mother left all her money to the girl and her sister. After a sequence of events that's a tad confusing but culminates in the murder of the younger sister, the stepfather has our heroine committed to an asylum and arranges for her to be lobotomized. The rest of the movie consists of her attempts to escape, both figuratively and literally.
Almost as soon as she arrives, her mind constructs an alternate reality, though only slightly less bleak than her current one. Part of the inmates' therapy is to act out their issues, quite literally, on a stage. So "Baby Doll," as she comes to be called, imagines the asylum as a burlesque theater where she and the other girls dance for "clients." The asylum orderly who abuses the girls becomes a cruel boss figure, and the psychiatrist (Carla Gugino) becomes an artistic director of some sort. (Just a note, while we're here and while you may or may not be frozen with a "huh?" expression on your face at what you've read so far ... if suspending disbelief is not your thing and you demand logic from your stories, stay far away from this movie.)
Baby Doll is asked to dance. The music starts and eventually she starts to (barely) move, but suddenly we zoom in on her eye and we enter a third level of reality. Baby Doll is now in a completely different place and time within her own mind, and she meets The Wiseman (Scott Glenn), who tells her how to escape. She needs five things - a map, fire, a knife, a key, and a fifth item that is a mystery. She defeats three giant mecha-monsters in a sequence that at first might seem frivolous and lacking in risk and emotional connection, but which I think merely serve to show Baby Doll the rules of this reality and what she is capable of. After this initial battle, Baby Doll is back in the dance studio and has finished her dance, and she has apparently impressed everyone so much that she's going to use her dancing as part of the plot to get the items she needs for escape. But first she needs help from the other girls - Rocket (Jena Malone), Sweet Pea (Abby Cornish), Blondie (Vanessa Hudgins), and Amber (Jamie Chung).
We see the girls fight to secure the needed items, both in the dance hall reality and in the third reality. Baby Doll uses her dancing in the second reality to distract people while the other girls get the tokens. And, just as before, whenever the music starts, we enter that third and much more heightened reality, and the girls are on missions (led by The Wiseman) to capture items that are analogous to the escape tools. They fight Nazi zombies to steal a map, they slay a baby dragon and steal the fire from its throat, etc. One of many things I felt should have been different is that I wish the movie had cut back to the *actual* reality of the asylum at least once or twice. Maybe Snyder was trying to make the ending more surprising, when you see that she was in the asylum all along and - aha! - she really did do the things she did in those other realities, just more mundane versions of them.
As I said, there are huge story problems with this movie. It feels a lot like it was meant to be longer and just got chopped to pieces, with the action setpieces getting priority in the editing process and the actual storytelling and characterization stuck on the cutting room floor, or perhaps merely ghosts from earlier drafts of the script.
However, there are some subversive elements that I quite liked and wish had been in a better movie. I cringed like hell at the trailers and what I saw as Scott Glenn's dumb hero lines, notably "If you don't stand for something, you'll fall for anything" (the origin of which has been credited to many historical figures, including Malcolm X, General Patton, and Alexander Hamilton). But I think they're *intended* to be awkward and somewhat meaningless. If you watch the film, you'll notice that his mentor advice is always two-fold. The first bit is the dumb hero line, the second (preceded by "oh, and one more thing") is actually useful information for whatever task the girls are trying to accomplish. I thought it was kind of poking fun at other movies/stories that use that kind of dialogue much more earnestly.
Mr. Beaks of AICN wrote a fairly thoughtful (though still very critical) review in which he proposes the idea that Snyder is criticizing the fetishization of sexy, scantily clad, fighting female badasses. I'm not sure how confident I am about it being a critique, but I don't think it's an accident that Baby Doll is made up to look eerily like Sailor Moon.
Nor do I think it's an accident that the logos for the two works are so similar.
As disappointing as the movie is on so many levels, though, I still really dug it. I'd much rather see an ambitious failure, where I'm certain that everyone involved believes in the story they're telling and are having a good time telling it, than a lazy cash grab. Perhaps this is why I have an unusually rosy response to the Harry Potter films (not that I think those are failures AT ALL, though some of you may). It puts a grin on my face to see David Heyman and his posse trying (and yes, usually failing) to do Rowling one better. They REALLY want those movies to be good. You can feel it (or at least I can), and that's pretty intoxicating to watch (again, for me, at least). And I can tell how much Zack Snyder wants Sucker Punch to be good, which is why, even though it's mostly a mess, I respect it and I respect the effort. [NOTE: I hope no one thinks I'm comparing this movie to the HP films, by the way. I AM NOT, BY ANY MEANS.]
If you're wondering whether you should check this out ... I honestly don't know what to tell you. If you're intrigued by what I described of the plot above, I'd say it's at least worth a matinee. I personally think it's worth seeing for the pretty stunning visuals of the "third reality" alone, especially (OMG!) the "bomb on the train" sequence. There's some good music on display, too, but it's kind of wasted. But if you decide to see it, don't make the mistake I did. This is NOT a 3D movie, and there are theaters posing as IMAXes that are NOT IMAX. It probably looks great on an IMAX screen, but it looks good on a regular (or slightly larger) screen too.