Zack Snyder’s fifth film and his first foray as the triple threat of director, producer, and writer, Sucker Punch is a story about badass females seeking to escape disempowerment; a fantasy within a fantasy, a multilayered narrative of young women fighting against oppression and abuse. The film’s synopsis is as follows:
A young girl (Emily Browning) is locked away in a mental asylum by her abusive stepfather where she will undergo a lobotomy in five days’ time. Faced with unimaginable odds, she retreats to a fantastical world in her imagination where she and four other female inmates at the asylum, plot to escape the facility. The lines between reality and fantasy blur as Baby Doll and her four companions, as well as a mysterious guide, fight to retrieve the five items they need that will allow them to break free from their captors before it’s too late… (source)
I placed this film on my Blindspot list for 2017 because I felt like I’d always had a gap in the films that I’d seen which were crafted by Zack Snyder in some shape or form. I quite enjoyed 300 (2007) and Watchmen (2009), and given Snyder’s love of bombastic action sequences, I was eager to give this one a try. That, and I quite enjoy female-led films, and films that place female empowerment as a core concept or theme.
Sucker Punch is a strange film, which I’m of two minds about. The film plays host to a great ensemble cast who do what they can with a script that can be quite cliché at times (and with a bendy story that some keen-eyed film aficionados will be able to predict from the beginning). Emily Browning plays a quietly strong lead as Babydoll, who is committed to an insane asylum and initially seems to hold a lot of self-blame and shame. Our girl gang of Emily Browning, Jena Malone, Abbie Cornish, Vanessa Hudgens and Jamie Chung all have their own roles and strengths as characters, and the film makes good use of these differing strengths to ensure that each character is easily distinguishable from the other, each with their own memorable identity. Abbie Cornish was the standout for me, with a very strong performance indeed. I had no idea Oscar Isaac was in this film, but he too makes good use of some cheesy lines, making them seem less cheesy in a way that only the pure, charismatic skill of Oscar Isaac could do.
The good news is, as with many films that I find awkwardly perplexing or just downright bad, the film is visually beautiful. Cinematography by Larry Fong (who also worked on 300 and Watchmen), and inventive, eye-catching production design by Rick Carter, ensures that you are constantly entertained on the surface level. The battle scenes (and there are many) are brilliant and stylised, taking seemingly endless inspiration from Japanese anime, high fantasy, and real life trench warfare mixed with cool robots. Zack Snyder loves a good fight scene and he knows how to make them well. Luckily, he also maintains this skill across the film’s quieter moments. The soundtrack, with its varying covers of modern music, is quite good. I can honestly say that if you rated this film by its aesthetics at all times, you’d be highly impressed. But then, you’d be essentially viewing the film from a lobotomised point of view. Shiny, so shiny. Such fire and guns. Good noises. Such burlesque costumes during fight scenes. Wow.
On a more critical level, Sucker Punch places its viewers in a strange situation, where we are expected to view its female leads as victims, yet also as empowered and strong, yet also view them through a sexualised, sensual gaze at the same time. It’s an altogether uncomfortable paradox that is glossed over by the film’s excellent fight and action sequences, which can serve to distract from its underlying themes and ideas. As viewers, we are fed plenty of cheese-tastic lines about inner power and taking control of your own destiny. Yet at the same time, these characters are proven time and time again to never have the capacity to be in control by their own means (that is, the definition of ‘female power’ here, is ‘female power as granted by more powerful men’). And we’re meant to accept that as well. Snyder himself has stated that the film is meant to be viewed as a ‘critique on sexist geek culture’; but yet it plays into that culture at the same time. And it’s not just because the girls are wearing short skirts, because if they were wearing turtlenecks and jeans the underlying themes of the film would still be the same.
Sucker Punch is one of those films that is both enjoyable and frustrating to watch. Whilst Zack Snyder proves again that he is quite excellent at creating a dynamic action film which is highly visually pleasing and thrilling to watch, and whilst he attempts to subvert expectations by melding sexuality and violent fight scenes into one firey, shiny beast which is meant to symbolise female power, the fact of the matter is that the film ultimately becomes its own paradox. Perhaps it just depends who you ask, as to whether the film succeeds at its thematic goals or not. It’s either a subversive film about females taking control and seeking empowerment through fantastic means; or, it’s a film where the females were never destined to hang on to that empowerment in the first place, and if so, thank goodness for the men who allowed them to. It might be worth watching to see where your feelings and perspectives lie.
Watch the trailer here.