So, Sucker Punch.

What is a sucker punch?  It’s an American phrase that hasn’t really been adopted here on the right side of The Atlantic.  In boxing, a sucker-punch is one that you are not expecting, such as one from the left when you are busily defending yourself against the punches coming from the right.

It’s a surprise.  Something unforeseen and against which one has no defence.

In cinematic terms it’s finding out what Rosebud is, or who Tyler Durden is, or why Andy Dufresne really wants a poster on his wall.  I’m sure you can think of a couple of dozen examples of your own … It’s a big twist ending; the sort of thing Rod Serling elevated to an art-form back in the 60s.

Right, I thought, as I paid cold, hard cash to get in to see Sucker Punch, that means all this form-over-content stuff in the trailer is just a rope-a-dope and the film is really gonna be packed with meaning and it’ll have a kick-ass surprise ending!

I had faith … I put two of Zack Snyder’s movies into my top ten of last decade.  Seriously, I don’t mind a film looking like a hundred million dollars, provided there is some meat beneath the glamour of the polished and perfect skin to nourish my appetite for something other than spectacle.  I stand by both 300 (2007) and Watchmen (2009).  They are not only excellent adaptations they are impressive visual treats with enough substance to keep my mind from ossifying in my head.

There was no sexual objectification in 300 at all, okay.  None.  Just so we're clear.
Visually, Sucker Punch is everything one would expect from one of the pioneers of literally-anything-is-possible digital film-making.  Even from its opening moments it has a visual richness which will look magnificent on Blu-Ray and which I wish I had the opportunity to see on an IMAX screen.  It is also a fantastic aural experience, demonstrating, particularly in its use of music: The entire soundtrack featuring excellent cover-versions re-imagined on a massive scale and re-purposed to very dramatic ends. 

You’re waiting for the ‘but’ … So; I’ll tease you no more: 

But the problem is all of the music is pre-existing, it has simply been re-mixed or re-recorded and therefore they represent what, I feel, is the biggest problem for the film … Snyder’s previous successes were all adaptations of works by great writers.  Or, in the case of Dawn of the Dead (2004), a re-make and up-date of a film many (wrongly) considered old-fashioned.  Sucker Punch is all Snyder’s own work.  Well, co-written with his old college-mate Steve Shibuya but based, reputedly, on Snyder’s own dreams. 
The film begins, a la Baz Luhrmann, with a curtain parting to reveal a stage.  This tells us very simply that what we are about to see is not real and not meant to be taken as such.  It’s a quick, visual way of saying “Once upon a time …”  Then we get a quick prologue, played out in mime, of our main character being locked up and abused by a wicked step-father (a not-insignificant role-reversal on the traditional fairy-tale trope) leading to her fighting back and being locked up in an asylum, on the fast-track to a lobotomy. 

The asylum is named Lennox House (after Annie Lennox, whose ‘Sweet Dreams’ forms the musical accompaniment to the story so far) and its common room is called ‘The Theatre’ because it has, at one end, a stage.  This, our protagonist is told, is where one learns to use one’s imagination to control the world. 

So, our main character promptly disappears into her own imagination where she is sold into prostitution in a brothel. 

Sorry?  Her escape is to a brothel?  Yep.  Oh, and it’s about this time that we discern that our character’s name is Baby Doll.  A nick-name, surely?  Some ironic sobriquet meant to allude to Tennessee Williams and Elia Kazan’s 1956 film of the same name, the one about abusively sexualised childhood?  No.  It’s her only given name. 

So, it’s fair to say that, ahem, ‘Baby Doll’ has self-esteem issues.
Ah, the giant-samurai-with-a-machine-gun, that ole chestnut!

Then, when she is required to debase herself by dancing (which is, of course, the PG-13 / 12A version of what a brothel is really there for) she withdraws even further into herself and escapes into a third level of unreality in which she wears a school uniform and wields a sword with Thurmanesque proficiency.  She first gets to demonstrate this by fighting giant demonic Samurai who are, of course, carrying mini-guns; all to the accompaniment of Björk’s ‘Army of Me’.

So we get to the point of the film, the two framing devices are really just an overly-elaborate excuse to parade a string of short films elucidating all of Snyder’s fantasies, which mostly seem to revolve around video-game conflict and hentai anime.

See, pop-culture in Japan is replete with so-called ‘Magical Girls’: Sword-wielding, super-powered school-girls fighting everything from demon rapists to giant robots.  Now, some apologists for this would have us believe there is nothing sexual in middle-aged men reading comics and watching cartoons featuring stylised, Westernised young girls indulging in thinly-veiled S&M.  I remain entirely unconvinced by this argument!  
Magical Girl archetype Sailor Moon.  No, I don't get it, either.

 Never-the-less, let’s conceded that we in the West only have the sketchiest idea of the immense range of manga and anime out there because very little of it is ever translated and made commercially available over here and what there is, is heavily biased towards the ‘Magical Girl’ trope.

Over here, in our media, these images just mix in with the cocktail of exploitation and degradation that even established and immensely popular female performers feel they have to put themselves through in order to get noticed.  They’ll tell you it’s ‘attitude’ or, once upon a time, ‘girl power’ but it’s not; it’s sexual exploitation.  It’s what the entertainment industry has, sadly, always relied upon.

Yes, I know she's doing it ironically, but she's still doing it - Even Lady GaGa feels she has to wear next to nothing and set her tits on fire to make people pay attention.
... And she does love appearing nearly nude in the papers.  Click to enlarge, if you want to, y'know, read the headlines ...
Meanwhile, the equally-successful Rihanna seems to feel that a singer can't be taken seriously unless she performs nearly nude.  A fine role-model from which our children should learn their behaviour, I'm sure you'll agree.*

What the publicists would have us believe is that this is a tale of female empowerment; that Baby Doll’s fantasies are really her taking control in her mind when she can’t in reality.  But surely, if this were so, she would derive some pleasure from these fantasies, but she doesn’t.  The close-ups of her face we get are, without exception, deeply disturbing depictions of misery and suffering … But what fucking use is an escape if the place you hide in is worse than the place you’ve hidden from?  What kind of masochist would you have to be for that to make any kind of sense?

So, no, this is not about empowerment in any positive sense.  It is about objectification and that age-old saw, The Male Gaze.  Whenever Baby Doll starts dancing, all the men in the brothel gather to watch and, afterwards, they are sweaty, palpitating and spent.  One of the most interesting decisions that Snyder has made (and one that helps stop me damning the film completely) is that we never see the dances; we see the video-game levels taking place in her mind instead.

These, frankly, stunning sequences, involve steampunk zombie Nazis (now how’s that for covering your demographic bases?) powered-armour and airships to the accompaniment of the ever-reliable ‘White Rabbit’, here extended, expanded and given orchestral grandeur, while a subsequent level gives us leather-clad schoolgirls vs. Orcs and a B52 bomber vs. a Vermithrax Pejorative (look it up).

Dragons vs. WW2 aircraft over Middle Earth ... What else could a young girl want out of life?
These sequences contain literally everything an emotionally-stunted, seventeen-year-old, anime-watching, cathode-ray-tanned game player with an over-developed right arm would want in a movie!  Of course, the girl who is actually fantasising about them is drawing them up from nowhere, since there is no indication that she has spent her childhood glued to her 360 and, if she hasn’t, where does she get all this imagery from?  It certainly ain’t from the music.

Problem is, even taken on a purely visceral level, there is no tension in these sequences, they have some spectacular explosions, sure, and some beautiful design, some exquisite animation, but no genuine drama.  The end-result is pretty-much inevitable.  Also, the fact that each of the sequences is, essentially, an extended video for the featured song that Baby Doll is dancing to off screen, actually becomes wearying by the time we’re into the fourth iteration of it.

Because of the film’s need to be family-friendly, despite its loathsome subject matter, the threat Baby Doll is under is drained of any credibility.  At no point is Snyder honest about what is really going on in his character’s minds; instead, like bad soft porn, he teases, he exploits, he frustrates, but he never admits what he’s really doing.  Maybe, if the film had gone for a more mature R / 15 certificate, he could have dealt with some of these very adult issues in a more adult manner and admitted that the worst thing that can happen to women in a brothel is not dancing on demand.  Maybe he could have been less coy and therefore less manipulative.  But, if he had, he would not have been given the budget to create his dragon and robots and therefore the point would be moot. 

For those of you with long memories, much of this will possibly stir up thoughts of a film from 1985 which featured a giant samurai, a protagonist who seeks empowerment in dreams and a complex ending: Terry Gilliam’s magnificent Brazil.  That film had layers of complexity within it that boggle the mind.  Sucker Punch has, deliberately or otherwise, taken some of Gilliam’s imagery, but washed it clean of all subtext and significance.

One of the ten best films of the 80s: Brazil.  Tomorrow was another day!

Have I mentioned Baby Doll’s friends?  No, I haven’t, with good reason … They are one dimensional ciphers.  Like her, they are not even afforded the dignity of a proper name, they are Sweet Pea (she’s the arsey one) and Blondie (she’s the dark haired one … can you see what they’re doing there?) and … There’s two others, but you can’t tell them apart since their roles seem solely to be to cry a lot.  The only character in the whole film who has a rounded personality and enough dialogue to make an impression is Oscar Isaac as the creepy Blue, who is variously the pimp or head orderly, depending on which reality you’re in.

I’m not even going to consider Scott Glenn’s aphorism-spouting Mentor character because he is a two-legged cliché par excellence and needs no introduction.  Just as well, really, since he isn’t afforded a proper name either.

Emily Browning: Look at all that Girl Power just oozing from every pore.
To be fair to Emily Browning, she does an excellent job with the little material she gets to work with, making Baby Doll suitably vulnerable and submissive and miserable in the first two levels of unreality, and an unstoppable action heroine in the third level.  She also has a pretty good set of pipes on her too, since she performs several of the songs in the crowded soundtrack.

At several points the girls are told that music is the short-cut to their imaginations and the empowerment of the self-hypnosis that brings.  This is an excellent notion and one deserving of further analysis; but here it just falls apart because the girls aren’t composing the music, they aren’t performing it, all they’re doing is dancing to it in their underwear like any ten-a-penny R&B performer.

Snyder requires us to care deeply about these girls, but this is simply not possible given the mono-dimensionality of their roles and the fact that it takes the best part of an hour to figure out their names.  But, further, in order to give a damn about them, we have to forget that opening shot: That curtain opening.  We have to forget that this is all taking place in someone’s mind and that none of these girls are real.

Click to enlarge and get a good look at all that head-to-foot Kevlar they're wearing.
So, as a very wise (and very tall) friend of mine – who thoroughly adores this film – pointed out to me that the real sucker punch in this film is delivered by the way its publicity led me to believe that it was going to be a cunning, post-modern, ironic dissection of sexist male-focussed entertainment tropes when, in actual fact, it’s simply the noisiest, highest-budget and most exploitative celebration of those tropes ever!  Well done, Mr. Snyder, y’got me!

The supreme irony of this film is that it passes The Bechdel Test, in that it features more than one woman with (sort of) names, who talk to each other about something other than men.  That is usually considered proof that the film is a female-friendly piece of work and one that feminists will embrace.  A little research indicates that such is not entirely the case …

If is to be believed here, opinions range from describing it as: ‘… ugly, stupid, offensive, depressing, sexist and boring in equal measures’ to possibly missing the point with: ‘… a lip-smacking piece of action burlesque, pulling one surprise after another from its splendidly filled fishnets’.  The two-handed critics have given the film an average score of 2 out of 10, whereas IMDB’s readers, who obviously must include a significant proportion of one-handed fanboys among their number, have given it an average 6 out of 10 here.

One reviewer, Adam Quigley – on the ever-reliable /Film – has ridden to the film’s defence with this cogent and intelligent piece which I thoroughly appreciate and with which I almost completely disagree.  By way of creating perfect balance, the same site also published this equally-intelligent but, to my mind, far more compelling dissection of the film’s fake feminism, by Angie Han.  I encourage you to take a few minutes to read both sides of the /Film coin.

But, of course, the film wasn’t made for us crits, it was made for the one-handed stimulation of … Well, people like Zack Snyder, I guess.

Dir: Zack Snyder
Stars:  Sailor Moon, The Bride and Obi-Wan Kenobi
Dur: 11 mins
Cert: 12A

* And, yes, including pictures of Lady GaGa and Rihanna and labelling them with the word 'nude' was absolutely a cynical ploy to increase the hit-rate on my blog. 


  1. And this news just in ... Apparently the B52 is a B25 Liberator. But I believe I got the serial number of the dragon correct : )

  2. The reason so many of the imdb posters have given it 'good' ratings is because they are PAID PLANTS by the studios to drum up good reviews of this tinker - I should know as an acquaintance of mine (Who actually works in Hollywood) and I were subjected to abuse by a devoted Sucker Punch 'fan' who claimed that we were not INTELLIGENT enough to understand the plot! Wow, so a stupid fanboy who loved the pretty pictures accuses OTHER of being dense?Said fanboy incidentally has according to his imdb message board history posted on ONLY the Sucker Punch message boards, at a rate of 30 messages a day(!) all praising the movie and insulting anyone who doesn't agree with it; great going Snyder - hire someone who insults your moviegoing audience who already feels ripped off! There have been a LOT of newer posts praisng the 'Director's Cut' DVD of this movie as 'it explains the movies' plot better' - oh, so no cynical marketing ploys there, eh? I have seen similar ploys going around for those other stinkers like 'Predators' and 'Wolverine: Origins' as well! And studios wonder why people download stuff rather than waste their time and money getting ripped off in the cinemas! Sheesh, the nerve!

  3. Ah, a true cynic after my own bitter and twisted heart : )

    That's a very good point you make there, Anony. Hadn't thought of it but, yes, you're right, there's probably offices full of otherwise-out-of-work copywriters creating positive feedback for money.

    To be fair to Snyder, he probably has no idea that's going on, it'll all be at Warners' behest.

    But, yes, this sort of stuff is all part of the new Social Media Marketing strategy ... trying to create good "word of web". There'll be much more of it in the future, I imagine!