My review of Sucker Punch
Story is king, and I think nothing proves that more than Sucker Punch's disappointing showing at the box office this weekend. For a film that was budgeted at over $80 million, was pushed by heavy marking that showcased the stunning visuals, and was from a "hot" director, an opening weekend of less than $20 million is not a good sign.
I'm reminded of an observation from James Cameron around the time Avatar came out, where he noted that audiences had become jaded by stunning visual effects. Images that ten years ago would have made an audience's jaw drop with amazement are now being met with a shrug. Yes for years now, digital technology has been touted as the future. There's nothing that filmmakers cannot create in the computers, no vista they can't take us to, no object they cannot manipulate.
And yet, why are films like Sucker Punch not only so boring, but also failing to even draw viewers in on their opening weekend?
Six years ago, Sin City opened to a $29 million opening weekend on a $40 million dollar budget. Like Sucker Punch, it also featured a lot of sets that were created in the computer, a lot of sexy, scantily-clad actresses, and a lot of violence. In fact, Sin City was so violent that it was rated R, so one presumes that it might have done even MORE business had it been PG-13 like Sucker Punch! Overall it did $75 million domestic and $158 million world wide - and it cost half of the reported budget for Sucker Punch.
Four years ago, Zack Snyder's own 300 had an opening weekend of $70 million, on a $65 million budget and it too was rated R. It made $210 million domestically - which is probably what Sucker Punch will be lucky to do worldwide. It too features a lot of CG environments.
I'm not going to add summer movies into this equation because I mainly want to point out the trends using these late-March, early-April releases, but it's worth noting that CG-driven blockbusters had been a big part of the summer movie culture both before and after the two films I've just discussed. They came in the middle of a trend, not at the start of it.
I'm sure that for a long time, many would have given the stunning visuals of Sin City and 300 a lot of credit for their commercial success. Give us a few money shots, some action and some hot babes and we're a happy audience - that's the conclusion the studios drew. And sure, those other films had an advantage in being based off of existing graphic novels, but they were hardly mainstream - and being based off of one of the best selling graphic novels of all time didn't help Snyder's own Watchmen get much above $100 million domestically in 2009.
So if these hits have so much in common, why didn't Sucker Punch duplicate their success?
Because it's about story.
At the end of the day, the ability to create anything in the computer is insignificant compared to the power of compelling characters, strong plots and engaging pacing. We're told as writers to think visually, and that's always going to be important, but there needs to be something behind the visuals.
When a filmmaker can make us see ANYTHING, we become impressed by nothing. In 1993, we were stunned to see dinosaurs reproduced so realistically in Jurassic Park, both through CGI and full scale reproductions. Today, would creating photo-real dinosaurs be enough to propel a movie to be an instant hit? Hell no!
The trailers for Sucker Punch did a terrible job of selling a story. Visually it looked cool, but there was nothing cool about the story it presented, which seemed to be some kind of Alice in Wonderland-riff with a girl in an asylum. It's a far cry from the story of a conflicted hero who has the fate of the world in his hands, one of the more standard action movie tropes.
Another example might be the failure of Drive Angry, which opened at number 9 in the box office a few weeks back, despite having the boost of the higher 3D ticket price. For a while, the conventional wisdom was that 3D was going to bring in greater audiences who came for the spectacle. Guess what? Despite a lot of ads, Drive Angry just didn't look like a story most people were interested in.
It's about the story, stupid.
A visual without anything interesting to say is nothing more than a pretty picture. People don't go to movies to see pretty pictures, anymore than they attend the theatre to see how well the stage sets are painted. Or in the case of Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark, how well the safety line holds.
Yes, there are musicals that have made production design their selling point, but let me tell you, all the production design in the world won't save your ass from falling asleep during the interminable first hour of Les Miserables. (Tip: If you go to this, bring a pillow and ask your date to wake you at "Master of the House.")
Now, the clear counterarguement to my assertion there is Transformers: Rise of the Machines. I can't explain that one either, though it was a pre-sold sequel coming in the middle of a very big summer. It had plenty of action and mayhem, but very little plot to speak of. I'm sure there'll always be anomalies like these, but I believe as desensitization to visual effects increases, so will audiences become more discriminating in the stories they shell out their hard-earned dollars for.
So make your screenplays airtight. Make sure there's something entertaining and compelling you're trying to say. Oh, and don't forget one other secret ingredient...
But we'll get to that tomorrow.