Let’s talk about the fetish movie for a second. Not the X-rated variety, but instead the strain of cinema where very talented filmmakers get away (or don’t get away) with indulging themselves with recurring elements that are arguably inessential to the various stories they’re telling. What I mean is that some filmmakers obsess over images and career-long leitmotifs that often have very little to do with main themes or story-based content in their movies. Quite simply: It’s the stuff they don’t need to have, but they like to see.
Spike Lee loves weird character names and baseball. Michael Bay loves fancy cars and fake tits. John Landis loves real tits and anarchy. The Coen brothers love screaming fat men and cussing. David Lynch loves retro diners and non-sequiturs. Steven Spielberg loves the 1940s. J.J. Abrams loves Steven Spielberg. Martin Scorsese loves the Rolling Stones. Paul Greengrass loves shaking the camera until the audience gets sick. Woody Allen loves pretentious literary references. Wes Anderson loves tweed. Robert Rodriguez loves Quentin Tarantino.
Yeah, let’s talk about that guy. Quentin Tarantino is the king of fetish filmmakers. Tarantino’s primary genius is the way he takes a whole mess of elements that only the fringiest weirdos care about, and piling them all into his movies into one hyperactive monster drink that somehow appeals to a much wider audience. Tarantino loves fast food, super-sugary breakfast cereal, old cartoons and TV shows, 1970s horror and kung-fu movies, outdated slang, racial epithets, gore, retro diners, Uma Thurman, and (unfortunately) Eli Roth. He’s also got a whole lot of the more literal kind of fetishes. Particularly the foot thing. He’s really into the foot thing. (See: Pulp Fiction, Jackie Brown, Kill Bill, Death Proof, and Inglourious Basterds. I was wondering how the hell he could fit his foot fetish into World War II, but the sonuvabitch managed to get it in there!) And somehow, from him, it’s perfectly acceptable. To the point where something like this can happen on daytime TV. It helps to be a brilliant filmmaker and a true artist, I guess. But there’s also an intangible alchemy between director and audience, an unbridled enthusiasm unique to Tarantino, that makes it work. In other words: He can get away with it. But it seems to be only him. Most other people can’t. Case in point: Zack Snyder and Sucker Punch.
Zack Snyder is a ridiculously talented visual stylist who first caught everyone’s attention with the phenomenal opening sequence of his Dawn Of The Dead remake. The rest of that movie was a gradual come-down from that brilliant high. (Tarantino approved!) Snyder followed it up with his adaptation of Frank Miller’s 300, of which I was not a fan, but it was a tremendous left-field hit which gave him the power to push his dream project into the green light. That project was a film adaptation of the classic miniseries by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons, Watchmen. Snyder’s film was flawed, but in my opinion no one could have made a better one from that source material. Unfortunately, Watchmen was underwhelming financially, which would send most directors back to repeating their past successes. Most directors would have made 300 Part II, or 301, or 600.
Zack Snyder made Sucker Punch.
(After he made the owl movie, of course, but I’ve already covered that one.) So back to Sucker Punch, please.
To be fair, not that I know anything about anything but it seems to me like, on paper, this project was a brave move. Unlike 300 and Watchmen, Sucker Punch wasn’t a known comic-book quantity. It was Snyder’s original concept, which he wrote with Steve Shibuya. It’s the story of a young woman who is committed to an asylum where she and other girls escape into dream worlds to gain the courage to face the oppressive hospital staff. It’s a total pastiche though, combining pretty young girls, samurai action, giant robots, gattling guns, dragons (!), sword-fights, and fist-fights. These are all things that the comic-book-loving core audience loves, so that must have been promising at the pitch level. You have to reference Tarantino here because few other filmmakers have the cojones to mix up that many disparate elements and still hope to make a coherent movie.
So the first problem with Sucker Punch is that I didn’t care all that much back when it was called Kill Bill. Kill Bill is a very indulgent and very broad movie (or pair of movies) but at least it had Tarantino’s superlative screenwriting ability to keep it compelling. His writing is interesting even when his main characters are archetypes.
With Sucker Punch, there’s no entry point. The characters are nothing but archetypes, and Snyder never finds a way to make them feel like vibrant human beings on their own, they’re just functions of style. There’s no way to relate. The movie begins when the lead character, known only as ‘Baby Doll’ and played impassively by Emily Browning, saves her younger sister from being molested by her evil step-father and gets committed as a result. As lusciously-filmed as the opening scene is, it reminds me of Aerosmith’s “Janie’s Got A Gun” video (directed by David Fincher!) a lot more than it does anything else. It’s hard to care about ‘Baby Doll’ as anything more than a fetish object, because she’s not filmed as anything more than a fetish object, but unfortunately for me, she ain’t my kind of fetish object. Actually I think it’s probably a good thing that I’m not into pale blond schoolgirls. I shudder to think that there are so many grown men who are.
Again, we’re talking about fetish objects in the sexual sense. This becomes all the more clear when Baby Doll meets her fellow inmates, Sweet Pea (Abbie Cornish), Rocket (Jena Malone), Blondie (Vanessa Hudgens), and Amber (Jamie Chung). Their character attributes are their looks: “Older blond hottie,” “younger boyish blond hottie” (they’re sisters), “spicy hot Latina,” and “smokin’ hot Asian,” respectively. It’s never explained why the brunet Blondie and Amber have those nicknames, but then again none of them are ever identified by real first or last names so I might have been expecting miracles.
The girls are presided over by the lecherous Blue (Ridley Scott’s Robin Hood’s awful Oscar Isaac) and the more sympathetic Dr. Gorski (the invaluable Carla Gugino, doing her best with an unidentifiable accent). These captors force the girls to perform a series of “dances” – which we never actually see, so if it sounds confusing, it is. Somehow, when Baby Doll dances, it puts everyone around her into a trance wherein the five girls enter a series of dream worlds – feudal Japan, World War I trenches, and dragon-infested castle. They are directed by a mysterious, benevolent man (Scott Glenn, in the Sonny Chiba role) who directs them to obtain a group of items that will let them escape. Yeah, we’re in video-game plotting territory. But hey, costumes. You want to see the girls in tarted-up samurai outfits? Military tunics and fishnets? Corsets? Well grab your lotion and get the pause button ready, boys, because you get all of that and more.
Here’s the thing: If all of the main characters are filmed like fetish objects, and everything in the ‘real world’ asylum scenes in the movie are already filmed with a heightened sense of reality, then there’s no separation with the so-called ‘dream worlds’ which the girls venture into. The scenes where they face off with the evil Blue or the creepy cook aren’t any more realistic than the scenes where they fight zombies or samurai or dragons, so the film is completely ineffective on a conceptual level. Snyder’s compelling visual style, ironically, turns out to be one of the movie’s biggest mistakes.
The wall-to-wall music doesn’t help either, particularly when the music is this conspicuous. It’s impossible for the casual music fan to fail to notice the drawn-out, slowed-down, sugary covers of well-known artists like Bjork, the Pixies, and the Stooges. Personally it just made me want to listen to “Where Is My Mind?” or “Search And Destroy” for real.
And if the music and the visuals are never for a second convincing, if we’re never led to forget that we’re watching a movie (the way all the better movies do), then there’s no real sense of danger. Which is in a way a good thing, because Sucker Punch callously invokes — visually, if not literally — great historical disasters like World War II, the crash of the Hindenburg, 9/11, and the George W. Bush presidency. The movie has nothing enlightening to say about these events. All it does is throw young girls in fishnets into the picture.
At a certain point (probably about half an hour in), I couldn’t believe that I was still watching and thinking about this movie. It’s happening again. I’m thinking about it again. Look how long this piece is getting! It’s really not advisable to take this movie seriously, certainly not much to be offended by all the juvenile exploitation going on.
That said, this is one of the most puerile whack-off epics I’ve ever seen (and I’ve seen plenty). Selling this as any kind of female-empowerment manifesto would be a total laugh, which of course some of the folks who made it have tried to do. There is nothing for real girls here. Whether or not it was intended as such, this is a movie for Maxim readers. Ones who don’t or can’t even read the articles. These female characters are all archetypes at best — there’s no character shading or even differentiation going on. All five girls talk the same, they’re just played by five different people. They’re given moods or attitudes to play, but that’s not the same as giving them any sophistication.
Personally, I like the scene where they all start crying, because at least then all the masturbating nerds who like this movie can begin to learn what actual teenage girls are really like.
Of course, I’m not made of stone. I picked my favorite, if only because she’s the only one who looks like she’s seen any sun in the past two years. I admit it, I found Jamie Chung to be particularly eye-catching, if also particularly uncomfortable in all of the conspicuously objectifying scenarios she’s put through here. She’s been in Grown Ups and The Hangover Part 2 so she’s no stranger to being objectified, but she keeps managing to stand out even in a group of fellow pretty girls. If she can act at all (which we still haven’t seen), she has the “it” of a star. No matter what else is happening in frame, she’s where your eye goes. That’s “it”. I’m historically right about these things but you can feel free to doubt me. I usually do. Anyway, here’s another picture.
I also liked the dragon part. What can I say? It was a really good dragon. I’m not this movie’s key demographic, but there was a time I could’ve been.
Overall, Sucker Punch did not do well upon its release last spring. It didn’t draw the straights and even the freaks seemed to stay away from the theater. Maybe they were waiting for today, when the movie hits home video. (Yikes.) But in theaters, Sucker Punch barely made back its budget. Barring a massive DVD success, it’s probably going to be looked at as a loss. So where does Zack Snyder go next?
Back to comic books. Duh. The very biggest one there is, actually. “Big” with a capital S.
Despite not being a fan of Sucker Punch in any way, I still like Zack Snyder as a director and I’ll keep looking at his movies. I just hope he got all the Sucker Punch type stuff out of his system, that this is the refractory period, and that much, much more rigorous attention is paid to the actual story the next time. And remember, Lois Lane is a lady. Treat her with some respect. Treat them all that way, whenever possible. Seems like a good general guideline.
Hit me with your best sucker-punch here: @jonnyabomb