Sucker Punch and the desensitization to dazzling visuals
I've enjoyed most of Zack Snyder's other films, but from the first teasers of Sucker Punch were released, I found myself not anticipating this film with the eagerness I expected. Still, even with some of the questionable buzz, I still had the impression that even if it was a failure, it'd be an interesting enough failure to merit viewing.
I saw the film yesterday with four friends at an afternoon showing that wasn't even a quarter-full. You could feel the restlessness in the audience and as my group left the theatre, the consensus was that the film largely missed the mark.
It's interesting that Snyder's next project is a Superman reboot produced by Christopher Nolan, because like Nolan's Inception, Sucker Punch has multiple levels of reality, dreams within dreams. Unlike Inception, the story isn't nearly as engaging, and the relationship between the different levels of reality isn't handled as elegantly.
The film opens in what I'll call "Level 1." A teenage girl is committed to an institution for the mentally insane by her evil stepfather. The reasons exactly why he has her committed are revealed in the film's best sequence, the opening, and so I'll be light with spoilers there. The bottom line is that he's put there illegally and he's paid off an orderly to not only commit her, but also have her lobotomized.
We see the girl taken in for the procedure and just as the spike is driven up her nose, the film shifts to what I'll call "Level 2." In this fantasy, the asylum has become a brothel, with the patients now recast as dancers. The girl is now addressed as "Baby Doll" and has been brought there to be a gift for a high roller who will arrive in a few days. Most of the other dancers react to Baby Doll's horror with disinterest, and a clear sense that they've accepted their own sad fates. Baby Doll hatches a plan to escape, saying they need to work together to get a map, a lighter, a knife and a key in order to make their plan possible.
See, Baby Doll apparently has a talent for burlesque dancing, and is in fact so enticing that when she dances, everyone is so mesmerized that it makes for a complete distraction while the other four girls complete their various tasks. I say "apparently" because not once do we actually see Baby Doll's performance....
Every time Baby Doll dances, we find ourselves in what I'll call Level 3. Here, the five girls are in a fantasy scenario that vaguely resembles World War I, albiet with the girls as soldiers wearing fetishized outfits; mechas; zombie soldiers; dragons; and high tech bombs. It's basically like they're dropped into a video game and were dressed by 14 year-old boys. Their "mission" is treated like a metaphor for their Level 2 object. If they complete the mission successfully, it means they got the object they need for escape. If they don't... well, you know.
And that's where the movie really falls apart for me. The War missions are basically a dream with in a dream. I don't know if it works to add another fantasy within Baby Doll's existing fantasy. We learn at the end of the film that in Level 1, Baby Doll attempted a breakout with much the same results as events when they play out in Level 2. Indeed, the events in the brothel play out as a more direct metaphor for whatever Baby Doll apparently did in the real world. With in the movie, we could interpret this as a fantasy version she concocted to make the horrors of the asylum more palpable, or perhaps the way her lobotomized brain chooses to recall those events.
The problem I have is that the war fantasies just feel gratuitous. If the brothel was the film's reality, then the war sequences might have worked better. Playing them as a metaphor within a metaphor makes that portion of the movie essentially a mixed metaphor. It's all gratiutious flash, and in a metatextual sense, perhaps it's appropriate that the girls are clad in exploitation garb during those sequences.
Why does Baby Doll's fantasy need a fantasy of its own? How does that add a new layer of meaning to the story? I don't think the film as presented offers a good answer to that question. The fact that Baby Doll's war fantasies draw on influences that seem to post-date the timeline where Baby Doll "really" lives is another oddity. (The film's opening is set in 1955.)
So the problem is that we have a film that seems to try very hard to tell us it has deep meaning, but there are major, fundamental elements that don't justify their own inclusion. There might be some attempt at thematic meaning, or using these dreams as a metaphor, but it doesn't hold together.
I also took issue with the way that the film tried very hard at times to tell their story visually, only to undermine that with musical choices where the lyrics were deeply on-the-nose. Powerful silent storytelling is ruined by ham-handed sound cues. Part of me wishes I could have seen the film with the sound off.
Then, a series of events at the end of the film muddle things even further. There's a point where Baby Doll and the sole survivor of her group manage to get outside the brothel, only to find that there are men just outside who block their escape. Baby Doll realizes she needs to sacrifice herself as a distraction so her companion can get away, but she does so with some odd dialogue that left me wondering if some connective tissue fell prey to the editor's knife. She mumbles something about realizing that "this" isn't "my story." As if some great truth is revealed to her, she accepts her fate and allows her friend the opportunity to escape.
The script might have gotten away with that, but then later we see that friend nearly caught at a bus stop by local police, only to be rescued by the kindness of a bus driver. This sequence felt a little vague as to which level of reality it takes place in. It could be the patient as she escaped in Level 1, or it could be Baby Doll's dream of her friend's escape in Level 2. Of course, if that's part of Baby Doll's fantasy, why are we seeing it?
This is made more confusing by the fact that the bus driver is the same "mentor" character whom Baby Doll and her friends have taken orders from in all of their Level 3 adventures. He exists only in the dream-within-a-dream of Level 3, yet here he is in Level 1 or 2, giving further cryptic dialogue that's on the order of the writer trying to hammer home the meaning of his script. I'm not one to pretend that if I don't get the meaning of a script that necessarily means it doesn't have it, but here I feel secure in saying that the mixed metaphors of the film render any conclusion impenetrable.
And to add insult to injury, the credit sequence is "enhanced" with an inexplicable burlesque number. The girls are not only outfitted in a way unlike any of their other brothel costumes, but the brothel's madam and the owner of the establishment also take part in this musical number. It's the very definition of "indulgent."
Perhaps a version of this film exists where the metaphors are more coherent and the relationships among the three levels of reality are more coherent. Unfortunately, that wasn't the version that opened wide this past weekend.
As we exited the theatre and walked back to our cars, my group attempted to figure out the thinking behind that dance number during the credit sequence. My friend Liz's theory was "I think it was... 'hmmm... how can we get these girls in even less clothing?'" Given the way the rest of the film struggled to remain coherent, I don't discount that as a key motivation.
Did any of you see Sucker Punch? What did you think?