Imprisoned in an insane asylum by her abusive stepfather, a young woman known only as Baby Doll (Emily Browning) retreats into a fantasy world where she and her fellow inmates are burlesque dancers at a glamorous nightclub run by sleazy gangster Blue Jones (Oscar Isaac). Whilst instructed in the empowering art of burlesque by the worldly wise Vera Gorski (Carla Gugino), Baby Doll enters yet another alternate reality where a mystical guru (Scott Glenn) advises her by retrieving five talismans she can make her escape. Armed with a magical samurai sword, Baby Doll rallies the cynical Sweet Pea (Abbie Cornish), her gutsy kid sister Rocket (Jena Malone), Blondie (Vanessa Hudgens) and Amber (Jamie Chung), and together they battle their way through parallel worlds beset by dragons, goblins, zombies and aliens, hoping to retrieve the talismans before her fateful encounter with the enigmatic High Roller (Jon Hamm).
As a little boy, I often doodled pictures in my schoolbooks of giant robots, big monsters and bigger guns, and sexy schoolgirls wielding samurai swords. Now with Sucker Punch Zack Snyder does much the same, only instead of schoolbook he doodles all over a multimillion dollar movie. Snyder belongs to that wave of directors specialising in a super-stylized brand of cinema, heavily influenced by video games, graphic novels and anime, although arguably most indebted to the Hong Kong New Wave. Unlike his contemporaries, Snyder is not so easily dismissed since there are solid ideas at work throughout his films even if he occasionally fumbles the subtext with his frantic style. For his first original screenplay, Snyder simultaneously panders to our guiltiest fan-boy fantasies (including fetching Emily Browning in a saucy schoolgirl outfit that would make the girls of St. Trinian’s blush) and attempts to subvert them. Adopting the Eurythmics pop classic “Sweet Dreams” as an aural motif (one of several songs capably performed by Browning and the rest of the game cast) the film finds the girls forced into these fetishized identities until Baby Doll takes control of the fantasies and turns the tables on their tormentors.
Operating on an internalized dream logic liable to alienate some but arguably familiar to avid gamers and anime fans, Sucker Punch inhabits a strange milieu unlike anything else out there, equal parts Alice in Wonderland, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1919), shojo manga, cyberpunk, fairytale, soft-core men’s magazine photo-spread, and classic Hollywood musical. Synder’s worlds-within-worlds gambit quite understandably went over a lot of people’s heads and the film was further criticised for its mixed messages, on the one hand spinning a line in female self-empowerment yet garbing its nubile heroines in absurdly skimpy outfits. But such aspects have long been a staple of even the most serious graphic novels and Snyder cannily subverts the visual grammar of pop videos and computer games. At its best, the unfettered imagination proves exhilarating and evokes memories of Terry Gilliam’s Brazil (1985), particularly the climactic withdrawal into fantasy denying the oppressor power over the heroine. On the downside, the film lacks humour and its downbeat twists (the clue is in the title), including the cavalier deaths of seemingly important characters, slightly undermine the core empowerment message. Snyder stimulates our senses and flings some intriguing ideas but does not always engage our emotions, in spite of the actresses’ valiant attempts at camaraderie. Browning, Malone and Cornish are especially strong, but winsome Vanessa Hudgens and stunning Jamie Chung seem like superfluous sex appeal. Nevertheless, Sucker Punch is genuinely ambitious and too compellingly odd to ignore, an intriguing romp through the pop cultural obsessions of our age, and may yet be re-evaluated somewhere in the future.