Sucker Punch: In Which Zack Attack Snyder Kinda Makes a Musical

03/25/2011 10:00 AM |

Sucker Punch
Directed by Zack Snyder

Until this point, geek auteur Zack Snyder has focused on adapting, updating, and/or generally Snyderizing a variety of holy nerd texts: Romero, Miller, Moore, and, er, the Owls of Ga’Hoole (presumably a cherished, kind of dopey childhood keepsake for the nerds of tomorrow, a la Transformers). With Sucker Punch, he imagines new places, at least in the sense that said places are not specifically adapted from any previous comic, movie, manga, or toy line. Perhaps chastened by the over-the-top manliness of his 300 and the Malin Akerman factor in his version of Watchmen (she was semi-misunderstood!), Snyder’s new world is a girl-power fantasia: nearly all of the men are grotesque villains, and most of the ladies are, in some form, fierce (if teary) (and also gorgeous) warriors.

His heroine (Emily Browning) meets multiple childhood traumas in the film’s dialogue-free opening sequence, melodramatic but effective, before she’s dragged off to a mental institution. Once there, she imagines the place as a bordello-prison with her fellow inmates recast as burlesque performers. Nicknamed Babydoll, she reveals a talent for dancing—dancing so awesome, in fact, that it can only be experienced by another layer of fantasy that involves no dancing at all. When Babydoll performs, the movie jumps further into imaginationland with epic pop-culture mish-mashes: Browning, alongside Jena Malone, Abbie Cornish, Vanessa Hudgens, and Jamie Chung, fantasizes that she’s fighting Nazis, robots, dragons, and monsters, sometimes all at once, with a vague quest to collect objects and escape their unpleasant circumstances in any and all realities.

Despite the iconography, Sucker Punch doesn’t so much recall other movies about Nazis, robots, or dragons as other recent pulp near-cartoons with no shame in their pinball delirium: movies like Moulin Rouge!, Speed Racer and Sin City. The action sequences, like a swords-versus-robots fight on a train done up as an epic fudge of an unreal single take, aren’t, for the most part, suspenseful or thrilling—or rather, they derive thrills from their wild, phantasmagoric craziness (just as the imagery from Speed Racer left a greater impression than any one race’s outcome). They look like splash pages morphing into fantasy-novel covers and back again, but with less 300-style slow-mo lingering.

The relative emptiness of this spectacle doesn’t chafe the way it did in Watchmen; Snyder is simplifying no one’s vision but his own, and moment to moment, Sucker Punch is a luscious, somewhat disreputable kick to watch. Yet even in his own sandbox, he sabotages himself: with supporting girls who don’t even fight for scraps of characterization after Browning and Malone split what little there is, with words (especially but not limited to some thuddingly self-serious opening and closing narration) that explain ideas that he seems capable of conveying with visuals alone, and with catchy but on-the-nose song choices.

About those songs: just what’s going on with the second-level fantasy stuff, anyway? I guess the idea is to convey Babydoll’s fantasy musical numbers with action, which has, indeed, replaced musical numbers as the go-to fantastical interlude of choice, and to underscore the connection by blasting remade or remixed versions of songs like Bjork’s “Army of Me,” the Beatles’ “Tomorrow Never Knows,” and the Pixies’ “Where Is My Mind?” (Sensing that on-the-nose theme yet? What if I mention the inclusion of Jefferson Airplane’s “White Rabbit”?). But repeatedly gearing up for musical explosions and then giving us actual ones lacks payoff after the first trick.

Maybe it’s Snyder’s version of a musical, or maybe he’s a gamer-mook who doesn’t like singing and dancing: even an actual musical number over the credits is pointlessly obscured, the images fading in and out of blackness. For a movie steeped in music, I wonder if its makers understand that it’s an art form that exists beyond use in awesome movie scenes. Put another way: I have the nagging feeling that Snyder chose “Where Is My Mind?” not out of love for the Pixies, but because it’s that song he knows from the end of Fight Club.

Maybe that’s just faux-snobbery talking; I was no Pixies expert in 1999, either. But that’s the effect of Snyder’s movies: visceral enjoyment chased with suspicions of flimsiness—which might be allayed if he didn’t seem to take his simple ideas so damn seriously. Most of his movies flirt with camp, but does Zack Snyder have an actual sense of humor? I’m not so sure. Not a single story turn in Sucker Punch proceeds with what I’d call wit—it has about as much storytelling as a parable or, more accurately, a videogame—and the actors are only allowed fleeting moments of playfulness (why on earth would you cast Jon Hamm for all of two scenes?). For all of this faults, Snyder isn’t a cynical string-puller like Michael Bay; he doesn’t jeer at his own characters. But with Sucker Punch, you get the feeling he’s adapting himself out of a lot more fun.

Opens March 25

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