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Sucker Punch manages to throw it to you. If you’re expecting violence, genre mash-ups, guns, girls, and gore you will get it. The one-two combo that wants to gut check the , however, is that in this dark playground of time altering proportions it will be hard to tell what alternate surreality represents the true reality. Which character’s voice is the true voice? Who’s story is it really?
Told through the direction of Zack Snyder and written with the help of co-writer Steve Shibuya, Sucker Punch is a ride through the mind of Baby Doll (Emily Browning) as she uses the world created in her mind to cope with the reality of her horrific present at the Lennox House for the Mentally Insane. Orderly Blue Jones, (Oscar Issac), has made an arrangement with the stepfather for Babydoll to receive a labotomy from the surgeon (John Hamm) in five days time. While he is making his living leeching off of woe of others, Lennox’s resident psychiatrist Dr. Vera Gorski ( is employing the tools in her arsenal to work them beyond their pain. In Baby Doll’s five day stay, Lennox House becomes a showroom and brothel run by the gangster Blue, Gorski is the Madame who teaches the girls all the skills of the trade, and Baby Doll the virgin sacrifice for the coming of the fabled High Roller. Madame Gorski tells Baby Doll in the studio to let the music create her own world. During her first dance she meets Wise Man (Scott Glen) who tells her that if she gathers five items: map, fire, knife, key that she will be free. The fifth thing, he states, is a mystery. By employing their charms and Baby Doll’s dancing as a distraction, Rocket (Jena Malone), Sweet Pea (Abbie Cornish), Amber (Jamie Chung), and Blondie (Vanessa Hudgens) the group joins the bid for freedom by attempting to gather a necessary list of tools before time runs out.
Story: Sucker Punch is Zack Snyder’s first original work and Steve Shibuya’s first screenwriting credit . There is no disguising that this is a dark, wicked story. Thematic concepts explored revolve around sexual abuse, exploitation, psychological damage, and insanity. The comedy, when it appears, is as dark the tar thick shadows in the opening sequence. Nestled within all of this are the pin points of fantasy being the tool for escape from a present day situation. By exploring the mind, the main character is able to cope with her present enough to make sense of the plan for escape. Through the layers of fantasy the audience is expected to grasp the metaphor that each character in reality represents. While the premise of escape is clear enough, the story telling is subject to bumps. Transitions between one reality to the inner world of the main character leave the viewer at times looking for a reason as to why it happened. A lacking distinction for example between the layers of alternate realities and the fantasies makes for strange shifts between them all. Elements of the true reality (i.e. the asylum) were left in with elements of the main alternate (bordello). Why not eradicate one to focus on the other? The strange combination of asylum conditions and bordello ones will leave many scratching heads. Some of the asylum makes the cut in to the bordello layer of fantasy while other items don’t. Even though this was a film about escapism, part of the grit consisted of the real conditions under which Baby Doll dealt with. As a viewer, there were many scenes that left me wanting to have spent more time with the characters to get to know their stories. An uneven balance in the dialouge shifted the feeling of importance to three girls instead of the entire five. In addition to Babydoll, Rocket and Sweet Pea enjoy a pair bond as sisters with a complete story. As a child, Rocket ran away from home. Who should come for her but Sweet Pea, and who should help her survive in their present state but the same. Blondie and Amber enjoy nothing of the same. Of the two, They are given moments of glory in the film with elevated confidence, despair, and fear. Aside from their presented personality traits they aren’t given the same humanizing treatment as the other three. How did they end up there? What has happened to them since being there? I felt that the two girls had far more to tell us than they were used for besides opportune devices to advance the objective. This would have been powerful with more time spent in the asylum environment, as some of the characters don’t seem to make the transition well either between one reality and the other. While the transition between Blue John, Dr. Gorski, the Surgeon, Baby Doll, Rocket, and Sweet Pea personas make sense, those of Blondie and Amber left me trying to figure out the gap between their fantasy’s sense of empowerment versus their life sense of lacking confidence and lacking history. With them you only get the obvious from their surroundings, and I wanted more than the obvious. Vera Gorski was also a character I felt wanted to break out more than she did. As equal parts mentor and enabler, the parallel of her as doctor and madame begged for exploration.
To their credit, however, the writing team did an excellent job of crafting their villan and guru. Blue is strongest character in the lot. This man just seeps manipulative, crazy bastard. Everyone shivers as he walks by, cringes at his touch. Wise Man is equal parts intelligent sage and bad ass to make his presence as a guiding voice believable to lead the girls through the environments of mayhem to alleged glory.
Style: The look of the film was beautiful. Snyder’s feel in the story’s early 1960s reality is delicious. The coloring is so dark and gritty that you can almost feel the sadness it implies. The opening sequences look like something out of an old psychological thriller and the criminality matches the neo-noir in the script. The asylum looks like something out of a gothic horror. Costuming reads for the era, and even with modern allowances, the feel isn’t lost at all. While the film geeks can geek out on the cinematography alone, the fantasy levels are where all of the geeks can come out to play. By now known for his use of special effects, Snyder doesn’t disappoint and goes full tilt on a pop-culture joy ride. Snow filled Asian temples with gigantic samurai made out of steel. A bomb shelled WWI complete with zeplins, biplanes, and Germans animated with clockwork and steam. Dragons, knights, fire, and a train complete with Asimov influenced robots make up the fantasy battles that the dream team embark in to trying to obtain the listed items. Each item is associated with a different dreamscape. Anime lovers, steam punk worshipers, sci-fi junkies, manga collectors, and video game players take heart. You are well represented in the fun house.
While many critics are panning the look of the female protagonists as a sexist teenage boy’s fantasy, I don’t agree! Baby Doll’s nod to japanime school girl warrior rocked hard while also giving a true nod to the Lewis Carol element of invoking the character of Alice. The others were given variations of battle gear that didn’t leave them wanting.
One of my favorite costumes had to be that of Amber, with her combined style of military and pin up girl chic while conveying our ladies all over. Blondie worked those goggles and full effect leather as hard as that gun. Sweet Pea and Rocket were well styled fists of fury playing double team back up to Sweet Pea’s leader. Frankly, the costumes show less and emphasize the obvious nothing as much as their video game or comic book counterparts. It fit well in to the war themed Wonderland the film journeyed through. When we are in the bordello, the show costumes, dance accessories, and regular life looks are also acceptable to each time and place. A good job was done making the girls look the part without crossing over the border to pure trash. You won’t find this geek-feminist crying foul!
The weaponry was just too good not to gasp at. A girl kicking butt with a samurai sword is one thing, but with a chibi pink bunny attached to her gun? Not to be overlooked is the fantastic WWI mechanized warrior painted with a pink bunny. Bullet sprays and bombs going off through three different areas of history is enough to invoke some fist pumping alone. All of the actresses did an excellent of giving personality to their alter-egos. Where I may question their place in the overall aspect of the main story, their dream selves were an asset to the imagery. It completed the package. Part of the imagery has to be the commitment an actor makes to the character. If they are lacking, no amount of lush landscaping will detract away from the feeling of incompleteness.
To complete the style, we are treated to a soundtrack mixed with ambient lengths of goth, rock, trance, and even hip hop. The instrumental score helped to invoke the necessary mood for each battle sequence. For this film, we find Tyler Bates returning to the helm as he does for all of Snyder’s films thus far alongside Moulin Rouge’s Marius de Vries. Emily Browning lent her voice to the title track “Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This)” to a wonderful effect. Her vocals in the opening sequences are haunting, innocent, and sad. Bjork’s 1995 “Army of Me received” an update that gave it a new flare while my personal favorite consisted of Queen with Armageddon aka Geddy for “I Want It All/We Will Rock You.” Equal parts playful, empowering, and dark the music managed to accomplish its goal with serious style.
Break Out Performances: While the writing was lack luster, Snyder was given a good cast to work with. Standing out in the crowd first for me was Oscar Issac as Blue Jones. Every part of his character from the reality to the over inflated, bombastic ego of the gangster, down to his true wicked ways was amazing! His screen time made for some of my favorites, his lines the quotes I will remember. Among the cast of female protagonists, Jamie Malone and Abbie Cornish, bravo! Rocket and Sweet Pea had bond that was funny, sweet, and sad. Rocket’s street smarts were tinged with an innocence that Sweet Pea’s no sass common sense needed. Since they came to be at the heart of the story alongside Emily Browning’s Baby Doll, I was as intrigued with them as I had become with her, and more so due to the portrayals. The scenes centered the pair even include one that will bring some in the audience to tears.
Final Thoughts: Stryder and Shibuya make an interesting team. Given that this was both of their first screenplay of original source material, I can be forgiving. The problem though is that in a world of make it or break it, this sets the brass ring a lot higher for success of future projects. While attention to detail in the visuals was spared no expense, the unfortunate thing about beautiful style is that without the benefit of strong writing to tie it all together, I am concerned that most viewers will be treated to an assortment of images that will leave them searching for hooks in order to swing from one point to the next. Relying on imagery is dangerous, and Hollywood depends on it far too much to get the audience in the seat. After the initial thrill of a teaser, a well told story is what makes a loyal fan base. It is in the well told story executed with a clear vision that endears fans to directors and writers alike. No one wants to go to a movie having to have a full breakdown already in tow to enjoy it. As a writer, I felt that the pair left us asking some of the wrong questions alongside some of the right ones. By the end of the film, the audience is thrown back down to a full on reality that was as awkward an end as the initial beginning’s start. Not everyone is going to be able to know right off the purpose of the film is to explore escapism from trauma, which along with what may have lacked in the writing, other elements of the film were also lost to the cutting room floor no doubt to secure the PG13 rating. My hope is that they will release a director’s edition, uncut DVD. I feel that if we could see the film as Snyder directed it and both he and Shibuya intended, certain things might make more sense. Lost, for example, were some of the song and dance sequences in the bordello theater. The tie in between the dance studio and the effective arsenal of charm would have been easy to see, let alone the sheer entertainment.
Grade: Geeky Chick gives Sucker Punch an overall grade of B, because despite its flaws, it’s still one fast paced romp down the rabbit hole.