Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Sucker Punch and the desensitization to dazzling visuals

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.


  1. Is that other secret ingredient 'suspense'? Tell us now!

  2. You're kinda contradicting your own point with this one: "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."

    Watchmen certainly had a story, being almost a shot for shot transliteration of the one of the most lauded comic stories of all time(although despite being a fan of the book I still didn't care for the movie).

    I think your point that the Sucker Punch trailers were confusing as fuck is a valid one I think another factor worth mentioning is that it has an all female cast yet is directed almost exclusively at men. How many other films have succeeded with this kind of strategy? The closest I can think of is Tomb Raider and that only had one female lead.

    But I guess all that is really overshadowed by the fact that the trailers looked, at best a bad video game and worst a high budget porno.(or maybe switch that around depending on you inclination)

  3. Well, the trailers I saw for SP made it look like "another scantily clad super heroine for boys to wank over." I didn't know there was more to it - but what you said about it made it sound worse. It's not just about women dressed in too little, but a pretentious POS on top of that. I hate, hate, HATE movies that are suppose to have this deep meaning that only the writer/director cares about. Be it a overly done movie like SP or something like Thelma & Louise. I go to movies to be entertained, not preached to.

    Also, I don't know about anyone else, but I find a lot of the highly CGI-movies tend to make me sick to my stomach. I mean literally. They go all 1960s Batman with the screens and the combination of CGI and wonky screen shots makes me suffer motion sickness. I can do a small amount at a time or movies where the shots, despite a lot of CGI, are focused normally.

    Not exactly good for the movie if you make your viewers want to throw up.

    Finally, I'm not impressed by CGI. I'm more interested in how people did special effects before computers. Like that one Abbot & Costello movie where they meet a boxer who goes invisible. The boxer slowly disappears, ending with his teeth, and I always wondered how they did that.

  4. To be fair though, Jurassic Park would have been a hit if it came out a hundred years from now. The CG dinosaurs weren't the only draw there. Just sayin'

  5. YES! agreed.

    i saw the trailer and thought 'computer game adaptation - no chance' when actually the concept is right up my street.

    REALLY poor marketing

  6. Not sure if marketing could've saved SP. That implies there's a story to hang a trailer on. I'm trying to picture a coherent trailer: show girls in peril, someone says that they "gotta get out of here", then follow that with... um... some shots of a little blond girl fighting a giant samurai, WWI battles and defusing a bomb on the Tron Legacy train. So wait, she's trying to escape from somewhere?

    The greatest studio marketing couldn't pull even a hint of story out of this one for a trailer. I was just as confused by the movie itself as the trailers for it.

  7. Patrick - That was actually the point I was trying to make, though in re-reading I realize I expressed it badly and it sounded like I was taking a shot at Jurassic Park. What I MEANT to say was that CG visuals ALONE wouldn't have ensured box office success today and that the story would make the difference. (Whereas in '93, they probably could have gotten away with just making the dinos look real and skimped on the script.)

    archdukezeb - I see what you're saying. I should have added that Watchmen had a strong opening weekend, of $55 million. So it did a better job of selling its story initially to a core audience, but obviously it didn't have the same appeal as 300 and Sin City because word-of-mouth must have killed it on subsequent weekends.

    In other words, Warners at least had a strong concept they were trying to sell, and they did better initially than with Sucker Punch (which seems to be backed up by many other comments here regarding the marketing.)

    But what I was really getting at was that I don't think there's much traction for Sucker Punch apologists to claim that SP only did so badly because it wasn't "pre-sold" like all the other movies I compared it to. Watchmen is arguably better known than 300 and Sin City and it was out-grossed by both.

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  9. "Because it's about story."

    This is true, and yet at the same time, a sad commentary on Avatar's amazing box office take. The story was the usual modern "everything sucks, modern society sucks, let's go back to nature, let's superficially adopt primitive cultures we don't understand, let's hate our own society" nonsense. It's like Twilight's draw with angsty, whiny, woe is me little girls who'd rather imagine getting deflowered by a centuries old teenager with the body temperature of a refrigerator. The sort of story that resonates is one of perversion of hope, denial of reality, and self-centered obsession with ourselves.

  10. Now, I'm not the biggest fan of Avatar. I think it was a pretty good film, but I don't think it's anywhere near this amazing piece of film that people around me claim it is.

    Having said that, I disagree with anyone that says Avatar had no story. Was it a story that has been told many, many, many times before? Yes. Was it a story that many of us on this site probably found a tad bit boring because it's been told many, many, many times before? Yes.

    Does that mean it was a bad story? Not necessarily. I've heard it compared to Pocahontas and FernGully. Neither of those tales are devoid of story.

  11. I was expecting to care less about all the characters in SP after Bitter's review on Monday, but I found myself liking them. My only gripe with the film was that it kind of made no sense... story was definitely a major issue the film needed its focus on. Why were we seeing these fight scenes? They weren't actually happening...

    As for Drive Angry, that's a movie that SHOULD have been seen... people donm't know how to have a cheesy good time anymore.

  12. The problem with amazing CGI is that you can tell that it's amazing CGI. Even worse if it isn't top notch. I think that's why people are so drawn to big budget (or just heat-packing) movies that make the effort to use in camera visual effects. Case in point - Christopher Nolan tries to do this, and look at the response to his latest string of much lauded films.
    Another point is that to most people I know, Star Wars: the original 3 all look a galaxy far far away thirty years later than the second trilogy look 10 years on.

  13. Star Wars films look better, I mean.
    If I wanted to watch an animated film I'd rather watch Wall E than Sucker Punch

  14. My fear is that the studios will take away from this that their fears about female protagonists are founded. It's a lot easier to ban women from action movies than it is to write a better story.

  15. That'd be sad to never have another Ellen Ripley, Sidney Bristow or um... Princess Leia?

  16. Oh, Emily... I have a feeling you're going to hate tomorrow's post.