Saturday, March 26, 2011

My Trip to the Dentist and Other Thoughts -- Reflections on "Sucker Punch" (2011)

Gun toting strippers for womens' rights
A few months back I had to get dental surgery. There was a chip in my front tooth that had been filled years ago, but fell out when I was brushing my teeth. The dentist felt it was best to put a cap on the tooth instead of filling it again. But this meant I had to endure three hours of oral surgery as the dentist filed down my tooth to the tiniest sliver (I caught a glimpse of myself in the mirror, and I looked a bit like Sloth in The Goonies) so she could insert the cap. Three hours felt like nine. Because of the anesthetic, I couldn't feel the drill cutting away almost all of my tooth, but I could hear it, sense it, and smell it (like burned popcorn). When she was done, the tooth looked great, but I was exhausted, depressed, and tense from the whole experience.

Watching Sucker Punch was just like this.

Plot Outline: Babydoll (Emily Browning) is thrown into an insane asylum by her wicked stepfather after she accidentally kills her little sister. You see, her mother has died and left a sizable inheritance to Babydoll and her sister. Stepfather is outraged and uses Babydoll's mistake as an opportunity to rid himself of her and gain access to her mother's fortune. Once in the asylum, things get weird. Babydoll teams up with other inmates and together they fantasize about themselves as a ragtag group of erotic dancers using their charms and other fantasies to find their way to freedom.

The Good: Zack Snyder's (300, Watchmen) work has always been praised for its heavily stylized visuals, CGI usage, and cutting edge editing and camera movement. Sucker Punch is no different. It's a gorgeous film to look at, each shot looking as if it were cut-and-pasted from a awesome comic book. The set design, visual effects, and camera work is superb.

One sequence in the film stands out as a great example of this. One of Babydoll's fantasies involves she and her girlfriends being transported to a WWI bunker. Their mission is to obtain a map from one of the enemy Nazi Zombies who gush steam when shot or stabbed as opposed to blood. It's a silly idea, but well-executed. The look and feel of the action is exhilarating. Unfortunately, the lasting impression is that of an order of french fries -- they look yummy, taste yummy, but do little for you and are easily forgotten once they exit your body.

The Bad: A lot. Here are 3 things:

1. The plot is about as coherent as Charlie Sheen. Seriously. Once Babydoll starts fantasizing, the worlds she concocts are supposedly caused by her dancing. Her dancing is so hypnotic that all who watch her are entranced, allowing her band of misfit strippers to steal items needed for their escape. This is a cool idea until you wonder how her friends can be both A) stealing things while others are entranced and B) participating in all the ass kicking that goes on in Babydoll's fantasies.

2. The Giant Samurai Robots are better characters than half the cast. Vanessa Hudgens and Jamie Chung as Blondie and Amber are fairly useless characters who seem to be nothing more than tools to push the plot along. Their fate in the third act made me believe that when Snyder first started writing this story, he didn't have them as characters until he came into a plot problem and realized he needed a couple new characters to make the story work. Until they are needed for the plot machine, all the two do is merely look sexy and utter feeble one-liners.

3. The video game experience of it all. I must confess that I am not a gamer, but do appreciate video games. Snyder, though, must love video games with an intense hard-on because this whole film is styled after a really bad one. The opening is mostly silent and unfolds its sharp imagery like a role-playing video game setting up the story you're about to play. From there, Babydoll's story is told in levels, with each fantasy representing another level with some sort of boss at the end that must be defeated. The problem with this is that video games build in intensity as they go; they get harder and more challenging. I can't say the same is true for our band of heroines. Just because characters die doesn't mean the game play got tougher.

The Ugly: Perhaps the worst thing about Sucker Punch is its arrogant stance as a film about feminism and female liberation. Snyder wants you to believe he's all about female power and freedom, but the movie's visuals undercut its ideals at every turn. The only way for Babydoll to obtain freedom is by dancing seductively, and to have male wish fulfillment fantasies in which she and her friends wield big-ass guns and swords while wearing tight leather and school girl attire. I don't see young girls rising to fight for their independence after seeing this movie, but I do see a lot of teen boys' jerking off.

Last Word: Zack Snyder is trying really hard here to impress us, and I imagine some will be. Most will be boys between the ages of 12-20. I still believe Snyder is a gifted director, but if Sucker Punch is the best he can give us, it won't be long before we start comparing him with M. Night Shyamalan.

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