“If you don’t stand for something, you’ll fall for anything,” says an imaginary character in one of the many elaborately pointless fantasy sequences with which Zack Snyder fills out Sucker Punch. The irony, of course, is that few recent films have stood for less than Sucker Punch, which is Snyder’s first original vision and a strange, uneasy amalgam of art film and video game. One is left wit the impression of a talented stylist and ambitious storyteller who remains unable to push his ideas beyond the embryonic. If anything, Snyder’s last few films – his misbegotten Watchmen adaptation; The Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga’hoole; now this – suggest a regression.
Sucker Punch has some oddball tendencies that are at least conceptually intriguing. The story: a 20 year-old woman (Emily Browning) snaps after the death (murder?) of her mother and is sent to an insane asylum for a lobotomy (!). Just as the doctor is about to prod her eyeball with an icepick, she reimagines the asylum as a classical whorehouse, wherein the female employees entertain the fat cat clientele with elaborate dance routines (and then more), and the squirrelly hospital orderly (Oscar Isaac) becomes a sleazy don who keeps “his girls” prisoner. Baby Doll, as our hero is renamed, turns out to be a virtuoso dancer – a feat she achieves by escaping to a further level of unreality, where mysterious stranger (Scott Glenn) gives her and her new friends (Jena Malone, Vanessa Hudgens, Abbie Cornish and Jamie Chung) random action movie missions that map to a plan to escape the brothel-slash-asylum.
There’s a poignant undertone to all of this: after all, the story concerns a young woman, dolled up and infantilized, escaping to a world inside her mind while forced to dance for the arousal of lecherous old men. The film’s touting of the power of imagination – “you have all the weapons you need to fight back” – gels with this subtext. But Sucker Punch’s thematic potency runs up against the futility of Snyder’s attempts to make a whiz-bang action movie dazzler. The expensive mind’s-eye sequences – which feature steampunk landscapes, giant robots, disfigured Nazis, and God knows what else – are loud and long and flashy and fundamentally useless. They are battles between invincible heroes and anonymous villains who have no connection to the story. Beyond the basic concept of escapist fantasy, they literally signify nothing.
Since these scenes take up, oh, two-thirds of the two-hour film, they leave Sucker Punch in dire straits dramatically. It is then up to Zack Snyder, visual stylist, to carry the day – and while he’s not a boring filmmaker, he’s not doing anything inordinately compelling here. To his great credit, unlike most modern action-oriented filmmakers of any renown, he emphasizes clarity over obfuscation. Rather than try to disorient the viewer with fast cuts and handheld shakycam, Snyder favors long takes, slo-mo, and stately, orderly montages that deliberately spell out the narrative sequence of whatever is happening on screen. The action scenes are beautiful, elaborate music videos set to remixed pop songs (the best of them being Eurythmics’ “Sweet Dreams,” which opens the film).
The precision of Snyder’s camerawork and his evident attention to detail keep the movie from becoming painful, but not from becoming sort of a gnawing bore. Sucker Punch is not indifferent or altogether uninteresting. Instead, it’s fundamentally misconceived, devoting the bulk of its screen time to some of the hollowest spectacle in movie history.