Monday, 4 April 2011

Eyecandy Monday - Sucker Punch movie review

Sorry, this is going to be a long one!

Sucker Punch, the new movie from Zack ("300," "Watchmen,") Snyder, has been garnering reviews so bad that they actually verge on a hate campaign. I don't happen to agree with those reviewers (who are in some cases actually flat-out lying about what appears on screen).

On the other hand, if you saw the trailer and thought, like me, "Wow, this looks like a silly romp," you'd be wrong too. It's fecking grim. Grim without being gritty, if that makes sense. And you have to pay attention while watching, to work out what's really going on between the lines.

It actually has a lot of thematic parallels with "300" and could be seen as a feminine version: small group of good guys battling against utterly overwhelming odds; the indomitable human spirit; true autonomy being defined by a willing choice to die for a cause; balletic violence. Oh, and - of course - Good Guys who wear surprisingly little clothing.

The other thing that seems to have had a massive influence, stylistically, is Japanese manga and anime. This crops up in all sorts of ways - the first fantasy sequence which is set in temple attacked by giant Samurai-era warriors; the mecha robot suits, the kick-ass fetishised warrior girls; the 20-year-old heroine who looks and dresses much younger; the victory-through-sacrifice ending.

The structure is odd, and I'm going to describe it here as I understand it.

Reality: The framing story. This takes place in the late 50s or early 60s. A young woman is incarcerated in a high-security female mental facility by her evil stepfather after they fight and her little sister is killed. The asylum is dirty, neglectful and corrupt - one of the orderlies is taking bribes to lobotomise patients. You see almost nothing of this objective reality during the film: only in the first and final five minutes.

Level 1 Fantasy: Almost all of the narrative takes place on this level: the protagonist sees the asylum as a nightclub-brothel, in which she and the other girls are imprisoned, making money for their shudderingly vile, self-justifying manager/pimp by dancing and turning tricks for customers. The girl here receives the nickname Babydoll - you never know her real name, or those of the other inmates, btw. Now, a lot of the criticism of the film is directed at this level - "It's exploitative," "Why is this her escapist fantasy?"

The fact is, it's not escapist at all. It's more glamorous than reality - the girls are suddenly beautiful, sexily dressed and patently sane - but on the evidence we have to go by, it's actually worse than the reality of asylum. The girls live under constant threat of rape and violence, including murder. All the men are monsters, all the women are victims just struggling to survive (This film has a 12A certificate btw, but you would have to be stupid to take any child to see it). Too damn right it's exploitative. That's the point! It's is however NOT trying to say that this is fun for the girls.

It occured to me that if this was a Terry Gilliam movie instead of a Zack Snyder one, this level of fantasy would be missed out altogether - they'd alternate between Reality and Level 2 Fantasy. So what's the point, apart from window-dressing? I think from Babydoll's perspective, oppression is genderised. It's explicity based on sexuality. Her stepfather tried to attack her little sister. The police/orderlies/staff  - all those who've destroyed her life - are all male. Her mother has died, the ultimate failure as a protector. The female psychologist is re-imagined as a dance-instructor who is just as much under the thumb of their manager as any of the girls - whereas in fact in real life, it turns out she has rather more authority and power. Babydoll sees a world where having a vagina literally makes you a prisoner. The other point I think this level of unreality is making is that Babydoll is genuinely crazy. She does not see normal reality at all. Although it's not very explicit, it does seem that she was the one who killed her sister while trying to save her from their stepfather, which is probably enough to break anyone.

Level 2 Fantasy: When Babydoll dances, she slips into a deeper level of fantasy. This one is genuinely escapist - she and her companions become martial-arts warriors with HUGE GUNS who mercilessly mow down whole armies of baddies. These fantasies are spectacular, anachronistic, set pieces of full-on CGI warfare. She is imagining a world where she has power, where she can change things. The baddies are never human btw - they are golems, clockwork zombies, orcs or robots, depending on the fantasy settings. These fantasies are metaphors for the girls' attempts to escape (carried out in Level 1 Fantasy) which are in turn metaphors for unseen attempts to escape in Real Life. Are you confused yet? Babydoll is the ultimate unreliable narrator.

In fact, she's not really the narrator at all.

Like in "300", there isn't a uncomplicated happy ending. Victory is moral rather than physical. Mr Ashbless certainly found that too depressing.

But Zack Snyder wants this movie to impart a message. It's totally explicit: we all have agency. No matter how awful your circumstances, it's your choice whether to be a helpless victim or member of the escape committee. You can give in, or you can take a stand. Because it's what goes on inside your head that really matters, not how much of a pounding your body takes.

This rallying cry to a subjective reality may or may not be problematical, but goddamn - this movie made me think, which is why I enjoyed it. And yeah, it was a sugar-feast for the eyes too, I'll add!

Oh, there's another thoughtful and positive review and discussion of Sucker Punch here.
And some more enthusiastic analysis here.


Chris said...

I think I'll watch the movie before reading your review since you helpfully label it 'spoiler'. Which means I'd probably better go tomorrow since if it's gathering bad reviews it might not be around long.

Is it just me who thinks that 'misleading trailers' is not only incredibly irritating but also bad for business? OK, a whole bunch of people who wouldn't have gone to see say "Sweeney Todd" because they didn't know it was a musical, did go and see it, but surely, they then go on to rip it to pieces to all their friends and in the long run less people pay to see it and it does less well in DVDs etc. And a whole bunch of people who WOULD have gone to see it, don't, because the trailer made e.g. "Bridge to Terebitha" look like a fantasy adventure and they had no interest in it.

Maybe like computer games the trailer should be marketed with "Scenes do not depict actual game play", or, more honestly still "This trailer is complete bullshit".

Janine Ashbless said...

When I went to see Sweeney Todd, people stood up in front of us and walked out when Johnny Depp started singing. So yeah, I can't help but agree with you!

Don't get me wrong: Sucker Punch does contain a lot of cool over-the-top kick-ass action scenes. But they're the light relief.