All Dressed Up and No Place To Go, by Scott Nye
What do you think is worse – unapologetically exploiting women for their looks, or doing so under the guise of female empowerment?
For those unable to tell the difference, I give you Sucker Punch. Zack Snyder’s fifth film admittedly has more problems than mere gender issues (oh, if ONLY it stopped there), but they are the most obvious and alarming. In the film, a girl known only as Baby Doll (Emily Browning) is committed to a mental institution for a crime she didn’t commit (and, one would assume, an insanity she does not possess), and rather than face the horrible reality of her impending lobotomy, she retreats into a fantasy world where she and her fellow inmates are part of a high-class brothel. Because, you know, that’s what every little girl wants.
But the brothel ain’t so great either. She’s still basically a prisoner, for reasons that aren’t terribly clear (because see, when you’re dreaming things make sense…), and she and her fellow prostitutes (who are really inmates) devise a plan to escape based on a fantasy Baby Doll had while she was busy dancing for some dudes’ pleasure. Yep, turns out that despite the fact that she was totally zoning out, she’s by far the best dancer in the brothel, so the plan mostly revolves around her dancing to distract everyone while the other hookers get to work preparing for the escape. And every time dances, she retreats into yet ANOTHER fantasy world, this the subject of many a marketing element, in which she and the other hooker inmates are Danger Girl-esque spies sent on ass-kicking missions to fight robots, dragons, and of course, Nazi zombies. Because, you know, that’s what every little girl wants.
If none of this makes any sense yet, it’s because it doesn’t, at all. And it’d be a lot easier to swallow if Snyder (who co-wrote the film with Steve Shibuya, who has no other credits to his name but will probably have a fruitful career writing for video games) didn’t take all of this SO seriously. I’d absolutely forgive it if the film was a silly little romp, but somehow the film ends up a dead serious examination of the quest for freedom. And believe it or not, Snyder doesn’t really possess a lot of insight into the human condition, but he believes he does so fervently that it would be endearing if the whole affair wasn’t a badly-acted, poorly constructed, embarrassing film.
A lot of critics have noted that Snyder the writer fails Snyder the director’s ambition, and that’s only true in that Snyder’s direction HAS ambition while his writing has…Nazi zombies. I liked 300 an awful lot as a piece of propaganda action, and Watchmen was certainly an aesthetically pleasing bad movie, but Sucker Punch isn’t even that well directed, honestly. Without a comic book as his template, Snyder has no idea how to present his potentially exciting, intensely decorated imagery in an interesting fashion. Money can’t buy a great image, only the things to fill it with. There’s hardly a memorable shot in the film, and of the half-dozen action sequences, I’d only mention the Nazi zombie segment as an at all exciting piece of action filmmaking. I saw the film two days ago, and it’s the only one I can really remember (hell, I had to look at the Wikipedia page to even remember there WAS a dragon). For a film with so much going on, it’s a stunningly easy movie to forget.
And don’t think Snyder makes up for his lack of visual prowess with any mind toward directing an ensemble, because nobody in the cast gives a good performance. Abbie Cornish and Jena Malone come the closest, but even they’re undone by a tremendous lack of motivation. It’s shorthand to say the girls (the others are played by Vanessa Hudgens and Jamie Chung) are paid to stand there and look pretty, but the truth is that they are asked for a lot more than that – remorse and despair both come into play, but are played at surface level with no feeling whatsoever, and the many scenes of camaraderie are mostly played to the tune of the lipstick lesbian fantasies a pre-teen boy would have of the girl’s locker room.
I don’t doubt that Snyder really felt like his film was a piece of pop female empowerment – for a guy with so little to say, he’s awfully sincere about everything he does – but the result is unbelievably condescending, a celebration of women only insofar as they’re able to sexually excite men (as though that were any kind of challenge). This is actually a film about a protagonist whose only quality is the ability to dance more provocatively than the other girls.
And it’s not like she even dreams of being anything more. Baby Doll’s fantasies come off incredibly unmotivated, and reveal nothing about her character at all, unless she has some surprising insight into how to sexually excite…I don’t even know. This is clearly somebody’s fantasy, and it’s an acceptable dismissal to attribute it to the average fourteen-year-old boy, but more than anything it seems like it was just Snyder making a movie for Snyder. And while I typically celebrate people who manage to say something personal onscreen, “I really like it when hot chicks in skimpy clothes fight samurai robots” isn’t exactly up there with “if God is silent, how do we know he’s there?” Hell, I’d even take the level of insight present in a sub-par Judd Apatow movie. And if you can’t muster that up, at least be entertaining.