Review: Sucker Punch, 2011, dir. Zack Snyder

Let’s kick this review off with a digression: I didn’t hate 2009’s Watchmen, per se, though I found it to be a massive failure that failed to truly honor Alan Moore’s essential 1987 graphic novel deconstruction of the superhero archetype which shamelessly* embraced application of style over the nurturing of substance. Zack Snyder, a director who somehow straddles the gap between his stature as a geek icon and his decidedly “bro” persona, understands the mathematics and language of cinema’s visual characteristics but remains woefully unprepared when he’s called upon to wrangle narrative and employ it in the best interests of his productions. I give credit where credit’s due; the man can direct an action scene and make a set piece explode with energy and vitality. In contrast to that, he desperately needs a director and a screenwriter capable of buttressing the in between of a picture.

In any event, Watchmen has the honor of being the starting topic here because as much as I didn’t hate it before, I think I do now and by no fault of the film. It’s more that ninety percent of what I said about that movie I could just as easily repeat in relation to Snyder’s latest offering, the big, bright, chaotic, sexy cup of stupid called Sucker Punch. Put succinctly, the film from start to finish clutters together a pastiche of mayhem and beautiful young women alternately in peril and in charge, all for the alleged purpose of analyzing feminist themes and topics and delivering some sly and subversive commentary on the nature of the action heroine, a goal which Snyder gamely attempts to meet and ultimately cannot despite his efforts.

To describe the plot of Sucker Punch could take up the bulk of a review on its own; this is Inception For Dummies, replacing the largely male cast of that film with twenty-something actresses who happen to look great fighting dragons, samurai, steampunk Nazi soldiers, and a plethora of other foes fantastical in nature. In a nutshell, nothing that you see happen on screen actually happens; each sequence unravels in the mind of Babydoll (Emily Browning), a young woman trying to escape the looming threat of a lobotomy after being cruelly shipped off to a psychiatric hospital by her brutish father. Along with her compatriots Rocket (Jena Malone), Blondie (Vanessa Hudgens), Sweet Pea (Abbie Cornish), and Amber (Jamie Chung), Babydoll races to piece together an escape plan and set herself, and her friends, free from their male-dominated existence.

Sucker Punch is brimming with potential for an invigorating examination of action movie tropes and, most importantly, how women fit into a genre of filmmaking long lorded over by men, but potential is all that Sucker Punch can claim. Snyder’s themes are introduced and left hanging, never fully explored and developed and made palatable; he goes nowhere with the questions the film asks. Maybe for some, that’s not a problem– to them the allure of the film lies in ogling nubile young women kicking the asses of the film’s menagerie of baddies. But that’s puerile, and even misogynistic in its own fashion* (though it’s arguably more disconcerting when one drools over a hot young actress being violent instead of being overtly sexual), and doesn’t properly serve the Snyders’ proclaimed intentions of dissecting the female action heroine and her role in cinema aimed at a largely male audience. Such questions are raised, but at the end they remain unanswered.

If anything positive may be said about Snyder and his picture, it’s that his intentions are good and his ambition is admirable. Outside of itself, Sucker Punch is about risks taken by director and studio to get the film made and to sell it to a mainstream audience (which Warner Brothers failed to do successfully). Snyder should be applauded for having the chutzpah to get this film made, despite some pretty severe missteps taken over the course of its running time, but of course that sort of praise only goes so far.

What does go over better lies in the film’s aesthetics and iconography. Snyder knows his way around action sequences, period, and he’s adept at making them visually arresting and instilling a kinetic forward momentum in them that makes the exciting and riveting. (Your mileage may vary depending on your feelings toward speed-ramping.) Taken on their own, the fights and battles of Sucker Punch are cool, slick, beautifully plotted out, and technically precise, and it’s a shame that the narrative driving them lacks so much substance and meaning; bereft of a fully-realized story to back them up and make them matter, they’re no more substantive than a video game cut scene, though they are far more thrilling.

And that, in a nutshell, is Snyder’s weakness as a director– he’s a visualist first and foremost and a storyteller second, and his movies suffer for his proclivities as an artist. The greatest shame of Sucker Punch is that Snyder comes very close to creating a transcendent experience in genre filmmaking while examining sexual politics and gender roles in cinema at the same time (and in doing so elevating his film above the mores of its genre), but his determination to see his themes through to the end appears to dissipate in the last act and give way to a slack and completely unsatisfying resolution lacking any sort of emotional payoff. Ultimately, Sucker Punch is an interesting failed experiment that speaks volumes to what Snyder’s capable of when working in his comfort zone, but whose flaws outweigh the positives and demand the film only be seen once.

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7 thoughts on “Review: Sucker Punch, 2011, dir. Zack Snyder

  1. I wasn’t really into the movieblog scene when Watchmen came out so am surprised to see that so many have hated it; I thought it was wonderful and I’ve been a big fan of the graphic novel for ages. Granted, they are different but I don’t think they can be analysed and reviewed from the same point of view.

    I think somewhere on the line Znyder’s idea of portraying the follie in women in action got completely lost under the magnitude of the production and pursuit of money. Sad.

    • They can’t be analyzed from the same standpoint inasmuch as one’s a graphic novel and one’s a movie, and both are different mediums even if they share a family resemblance, but beyond that they can be treated as the same story. I actually don’t mind the ways in which the narrative changed, but more that Snyder doesn’t seem interested in making a comment with Watchmen as much as he’s interested in style and action. There’s nothing wrong with either, but it’s just a case of a movie feeling largely empty when it shouldn’t. Especially when that movie is based on one of the most important comic books ever.

      And I agree. I think he made strides toward saying something substantial about action heroines and how we perceive women in cinema, but he lost it all in the third act.

  2. Maybe this is just me, but the primary hype behind Watchmen was that the “unfilmable” novel had finally been filmed, meaning its complexity, essence, and message were to remain intact. When I give credit to a film for equalling (or surpassing) its book counterpart, it’s mainly because some new perspective was applied to the story. While the movie may not honor to the letter its origins, its treatment of it is original itself, hopefully without departing from the overall truth of the first. But in Watchmen’s case, for me, the graphic novel was too wrapped up in what the film was expected to communicate and to be. When it failed in that department, success in any other didn’t matter; the movie fell short.

    And I haven’t seen it yet, but I guess Sucker Punch did too. It’s hard to be epic without depth. But if I wanna see stuff get blowed up real good, at least I know where to look…

    • I think that’s about right-on, and I also think that that worked against the movie’s favor. You’re putting yourself in a tough position from the word “go” when your film is based on source material previously deemed “unfilmable”, so maybe I should be kinder to Snyder given how tough a job he had from start to finish. I guess saying I hated Watchmen might be a bit strong, but I do hate how badly it disappointed me and let me down, which is more or less the same story as Sucker Punch.

      How’ve you been?

  3. I didn’t hate Watchmen, though I didn’t think it was all that great either. I did, however, enjoy it more the second time around than I did the first.

    That being said, I actually liked Sucker Punch for what it was. Was the plot shallow and the writing weak? Yes. But it was still a fun time. Snyder is absolutely great at creating action sequences and providing amazing visuals. It was a really fun “mindless” movie for me that was quite a treat on the eyes (not just talking about the girls either).

    That being said, you state this is proof that he lacks as a director. I have to whole-heartedly disagree with that. I think he’s perfectly fine as a director. His visual style and flair and his ability to direct action sequences is almost in a league of its own these days. What I think this movie proves is that he should never try to pick up a pen again. The guy can’t write. Direct all he wants, but he desperately needs to find somebody to write for him. That, I feel, is where his problem is. Give him a good story and he can direct it perfectly fine, but he really doesn’t need to be writing.

    With his previous films he had source material to work with. Thus, some of his shortcomings as a writer were hidden due to the source material being good. With Sucker Punch, his first truly original screenplay, he shows that as a writer/storyteller he’s no good. Give him the story and he can tell it on screen well enough as in directing it. But to actual write the story, he’s not that great at it.

    On a side note, Andrew, check out my blog to pick up your “award” in my Versatile Blogger post 😉

    • I think I might enjoy Watchmen a second time through, or at least I might enjoy it more, and the same is probably true for Sucker Punch I’d wager. Without any expectations in place, and knowing exactly what both movies are, I might be able to enjoy them more, but I don’t have any notion of going back to either for some substantial period of time.

      I won’t say that Sucker Punch isn’t a visual feast, but none of those visuals really matter outside of the context of themselves (and sometimes even in their own individual context). Which is why I don’t think Snyder’s a good total director. Sure, he’s great with action sequences; he’s creative, he knows how to keep each scene feeling fresh by not repeating elements and concepts from scene to scene, and he’s well aware of what angles and perspectives best capture the events unfolding in each sequence. He’s got a great eye for stylized and cool violence, undeniably. But there’s more to being a director than just that, and Snyder proves inconsistent in his deployment of plot and narrative. Much of what takes place outside of Sucker Punch‘s action scenes feels cold, and I often got the feeling that Snyder just wanted to get through the troublesome storytelling part of his job and get to the whiz-bang-wow-awesome stuff.

      Conversely, I think he told a great story with 300 and fully realized the thematic aspects of that film, but even then the film remains memorable for its aesthetic and its visual language more than for great storytelling. I’ve seen worse directors for sure, but I have a hard time calling him a complete director.

  4. Pingback: Blogs I’m addicted to + Film charts ! | split reel

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