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Now that the midnight showings are over, the newspaper reviews of Zack Snyder's Sucker Punch are up on the web. And I'm left asking myself ... did the critics see the same movie I did? See, I walked out of it slightly unhappy, but about the opposite of the thing that all the critics are complaining about. The critics are all calling it "incoherent," which is absolute bullcrap. On the contrary, I walked out of it thinking that Zack Synder has no faith in his audience, that every plot point was hammered home so bluntly and blatantly, including repeated zoom-ins and near freeze-frame camera work on every important image, because he was afraid people would say the same thing about this that they said about two other psychological horror films of which I'm fond, Angel Heart and Jacob's Ladder, what the whole audience was saying (except for me) after I walked out of those films: "did you understand any of that?" and "what did we just see?"

But no, apparently, if your narrative has any complexity to it, you cannot make it so obvious that an American audience, even one made up of allegedly expert film critics, can't miss it. So let me outline the main plot of Sucker Punch (but only the main plot, and not any of the conclusions or outcomes, these are the least spoilers I can give, and nearly all of them are telegraphed in the trailer, but I apologize in advance).

  • Reality: "Baby Doll" is a teenage girl in 1957 whose wealthy mother has died and disinherited her husband, Baby Doll's stepfather; in a rage, he gets drunk and tries to rape both of his step-daughters; the older girl, our lead, tries to shoot him to stop him and accidentally shoots her sister instead. So to ensure that he gets to keep the money and to shut her up he has her committed to an insane asylum ... where he then bribes a corrupt orderly to forge the paperwork necessary to get her lobotomized in 5 days, so she can't tell anyone what she knows. But on her way in, she is already planning her escape. The camera shows us, then reverses to a close-up on her face, then reverses again to a close-up on (so we can't possibly miss them) the following four things: a map of the whole facility with all exits labeled, hanging at the nurses' station; a fat orderly leaning against a sign that says "in the event of fire, all exits will unlock" while playing with a cigarette lighter; a chef chopping onions with a huge pointy knife; and the clearly-labeled master key hanging around the corrupt orderly's neck. Since she's drugged up, her stepfather and the orderly discuss their plot to have her lobotomized, openly, in front of her. She retreats into a fantasy world ...

    • Outer Fantasy Layer:... where instead of in an insane asylum, she's in a mafia-run brothel where she and the other girls are made to dance for the customers; she is told she is being reserved for a wealthy man who's paid to rape her, for her virginity. She is also told that if she refuses to dance, between now and then, she will be killed. So to put herself in the mood to dance, her fantasy self retreats into a fantasy world where ...

      • Inner Fantasy Layer: ... she encounters her first of several ridiculously over-the-top animé-style fantasy worlds in which she is a fantasy warrior, adept with sword and pistol and martial arts, advised by a wise old sensei to seek out "a map, a source of fire, a knife, a key, and a mystery that only you can find." When that fantasy ends, she blinks, and she is back in the outer fantasy layer where ...
    • Outer Fantasy Layer: When she retreats into her inner-layer fantasy worlds, without her being aware of what she's doing, she turns into a hypnotically erotic dancer ... providing cover for her co-conspirators to help her find the elements of their quest (still in the outer fantasy layer). So she must repeatedly dance, and each time she does, she retreats into yet more ...

      • Inner Fantasy Layers: a series of worlds where she, and the prostitutes who've agreed to escape with her, are transformed, in Baby Doll's imagination, into a crack covert-operations team, each with their own choice of blatantly anachronistic weapons and style of combat, pursuing (symbolically) each quest element. At the end of each quest, Baby Doll blinks again to return to ...
    • Outer Fantasy Layer: the mafia-controlled brothel to find out whether or not, while she was dancing, her co-conspirators have successfully completed the next phase of their escape plan.
The transitions are clearly labeled. It will not astonish you in the least, I think, to hear that at the end of the mafia-brothel storyline, there is a pullback to the actual-reality storyline, and I will not spoil for you the ending of that storyline (although frankly, it's telegraphed early and hard). If you feel Sucker Punched by the ending of that storyline, I can only assume that (a) you were somehow as confused by the story as the critics were, and yet (b) you still cared -- a combination I find unimaginable.

Personally, I loved it. Zack Snyder said, in an interview that was published yesterday morning, that he followed one rule when editing the inner fantasy layer segments: "The Rule of Awesome" -- if he could think of a way to cram more "awesome" into each sequence, he did so. I can't imagine how in the world anybody who can't enjoy a series of mini-movies about an anachronistic manga-style all-girl covert-ops squad dueling giant demon samurai in ancient Japan, then slaughtering steampunk Prussian zombies in the trenches of a ruined Paris of an alternate-universe 1917, then (with help of a Stratofortress!) battling orcs guarding the castle of a dragon in a fantasy-universe World War II, then fighting murderous androids in the narrow confines of a maglev monorail heading for a retro-sci-fi colony on a moon of Jupiter ... if you can't enjoy those things, each shot crammed with as much action and excitement and over-the-top art and insane fight choreography as Zack Snyder knows how to make, how did you end up at this movie? I can't predict whether you'll enjoy the outer fantasy layer, but I did. I can't predict how you'll enjoy (or even tolerate) the 1957-reality storyline, although it worked for me.

But if you found it incoherent? Either you were paying less than no attention, or I just don't get how you missed it.



( 33 comments — Leave a comment )
Mar. 25th, 2011 01:57 pm (UTC)

I was going to skip Sucker Punch, but now I may need to check it out. Had the same trailers come with, say, Robert Rodriguez' name on them, I'd have been all over it. But I don't trust Snyder. He has managed to make an adaptation of 300 even more fascist than the source material while calling it a story about freedom, and the boneheaded adaptation of Watchmen that I would have made had someone been stupid enough to put me in the director's chair when I was fifteen. I respect his talented eye, but feel embarrassed for the entire geek cinema tribe at his willful stupidity about story; every indication has been that Punch is more of the same, only more so.

But perhaps I'm wrong?
Mar. 25th, 2011 06:36 pm (UTC)
Huh. I say this not to criticize your taste, but to illuminate: I feel the exact opposite way about those two directors. Once I understood it, I loved 300. I think Watchmen was as pitch-perfect an adaptation of the source material as can be made, in the same way that Lord of the Rings was; almost every change in the source material I found entirely justifiable. But I find Rodriguez almost literally unwatchable, for the same reason I can't watch Tarantino films. Rodriguez and Tarantino have no illusions about how gross and ugly and visceral and unpleasant it is when people torture and kill other people ... and yet watching people torture and kill each other apparently gives them huge, raging hard-ons.
Mar. 25th, 2011 09:06 pm (UTC)
We're obviously in de gustibus territory, but color me curious.

What did you come to understand about 300? To my eye, Miller's original was enough of a fascist romanticization of the Spartans as it is, but Snyder's took it a step further. It was Snyder's decision to expand the portrayal of the Spartan council, showing it as squabbling, corrupt, and ineffective. It was Snyder's decision to give Queen Gorgo the American fascist platitude “freedom isn't free” as dialogue. And I felt that even more than Miller, Snyder made us complicit in the Spartan's worldview. I won't deny that it was entertaining in its visual proficiency and unapologetic over-the-top-ness, but the underlying themes made me queasy.

I respect that many folks don't take to Rodriguez & Tarantino's brand of deliberate popkultur nihilism. I can roll with it, not least because I also enjoy their sheer craftsmanship. (Though I will defend Inglorous Basterds as different in Tarantino obviously critiquing his own use of this voice. ) But for my money, I'll take it over 300 and its clueless stumbling into fascism any day.

As for Watchmen, I'll freely admit that it could have been much much worse, and it has considerable virtues. The production design was truly spectacular. As you say, the story changes were generally good ones; frankly, the one big major alteration in the plotting of the ending is an improvement. And there are flashes of real wit: the opening sequence showing us the backstory was beautiful and crafty, shooting Jackie Earl Healy to resemble Clint Eastwood in the prison sequences was clever, and the f/x on Manhattan's Martian palace were lovely.

But. Too many of the actors' performances were weak. And that contributed to Rorschach becoming the movie's center of gravity, romanticizing him in exactly the way that Moore worked hard to counter. Many of the key sequences suffered too much from being compressed to fit in the runtime to be worth including—chief among these, the entry into Doctor Manhattan's subjectivity. And while I suspect that Snyder may have been trying to do the right thing with the portrayal of violence in the movie — desanitizing it, making it brutal as Gibbons did with his use of blood et cetera in the book — it just didn't work, and instead turning it into more cinema razzle-dazzle. The movie as a whole was as soulless and dumb as the book is troubling and intelligent.
Mar. 25th, 2011 10:41 pm (UTC)
At the end of 300, we see the narrator's audience: the Athenian army, before the battle of Platea, I think it is. The whole movie we've just seen is not what happened at the battle of Thermopylae. The whole movie we've just seen is what Athenian soldiers imagined in their minds while one over-the-top storyteller described the battle of Thermopylae. That, for me, was the revelation that turned it from a live-action version of Heavy Metal, cool as that was, into something that was even vaguely historically justifiable.
Mar. 25th, 2011 10:52 pm (UTC)
Point taken. And I won't claim I didn't have fun.
Sep. 10th, 2011 12:29 am (UTC)
But we know what over-the-top story-tellers told the Athenians, and it wasn't this; it was Herodotus, who was an over-the-top story teller, working mostly at Athens.
Mar. 26th, 2011 02:35 am (UTC)
But I find Rodriguez almost literally unwatchable, for the same reason I can't watch Tarantino films.

But I thought you loved From Dusk 'Til Dawn? That's Rodriguez.
Mar. 26th, 2011 05:49 am (UTC)
I thought From Dusk Til Dawn was Tarantino??
Nope, you're right, Rodriguez -- but Tarantino wrote on it. (I had to go look it up on imdb cause I knew Tarantino waing Cloons involved somehow, besides playing Clooney's idiot brother.) I liked From Dusk Til Dawn and Desperado - but have to crack up at the fact that this is the same guy who directed all the Spy Kids movies...

While I am a big fan of the Kill Bill movies, I think that Pulp Fiction is one of the biggest wastes of movie ever made. So I waffle on Tarantino. Sometimes he's good, sometimes he's incomprehensible.
Mar. 26th, 2011 07:28 am (UTC)
I liked From Dusk 'Til Dawn, for the humor, but hated the action sequences. You'll notice that, while I enjoyed seeing it once, I've gone to some length not to see it twice.
Mar. 25th, 2011 02:30 pm (UTC)
Honestly, all i expect is that it be fun. If he wants to have big red flashing arrows pointing to every clue, fine.
Mar. 25th, 2011 06:40 pm (UTC)
I will say this by way of warning: if all you want is to enjoy the heck out of the mini-movies, the all-girl commando squad sequences? The 1957-reality and outer-fantasy layers may bore and/or depress you, and may even make you sick. In both the 1957-reality layer and the mafia-brothel layer, Baby Doll is a teenaged girl has been offered up, by the man who raised her, to another man to be raped; this movie does not shy away from the horror of that, nor from what that knowledge has done to her sanity.
Mar. 26th, 2011 12:22 am (UTC)
I will say this by way of warning: if all you want is to enjoy the heck out of the mini-movies, the all-girl commando squad sequences? The 1957-reality and outer-fantasy layers may bore and/or depress you, and may even make you sick.

Y'know, this is the film's sucker punch. It lures you in with the lurid commando-girl-squad action sequences and then WHAM. Reality smacks you hard in the face.
Mar. 27th, 2011 12:01 am (UTC)
I was there to see the live-action anime, ghost samurai, clockwork-steampunk-zombie-Nazi-soldier, warbird-vs.-dragon, over-the-top-CGI fantasy segments. That's what I saw in the trailers, and that's what I was there to see, plain and simple.

The outer fantasy layers could have been interesting, but for one thing that immediately struck me: WHY did we need two dismal outer layers?

If this is the girl's escape-into-fantasy, why did her first escape into fantasy take her into yet another place where she's being abused, exploited, imprisoned, objectified? Same villains, same confines, only now it's headshots and prostitution. It felt like an old exploitation film. ("Be HORRIFIED at how badly treated these young girls are in this film!") Actually, I'm sure the similarity was intentional; it's just that the writer had TWO lovely girls-in-bondage scenarios, and rather than just go with one over the other, hey, let's layer it, and let people think it's clever, Inception-style.

Mar. 27th, 2011 12:01 am (UTC)
The only interest the middle layer holds for me is that it let me have a brief argument-discussion with my friends about what "really" happened. Were there really 4 other girls who were her co-conspirators, or did they only exist in her middle-layer fantasy? (Sure, in the outer layer, there's mention of helping a girl escape ... but why not mention of, oh, the other girls who died?) Or maybe they DID exist in all layers, but in the outer layer, they had been lobotomized.

I suspect I'm supposed to think that this really has no happy ending - the sucker punch. I felt like the scene at the bus was just supposed to be part of the main girl's fantasy (level 2); the presence of the conveniently helpful bus driver suggested a surreality, but also how "Sweet Pea" seemed to be some sort of alter-ego for the protagonist. (But then, why the mention that she helped another patient escape?)

Mar. 27th, 2011 01:26 am (UTC)
I think the uncomfortable stuff is supposed to be uncomfortable: it's there to keep you thinking about the film and the problems the girls were faced with.

I think Sweet Pea was real, first because Sweet Pea appears in the actual asylum -- she's the girl on stage -- before the fantasy sequences start. Second, because Dr. Gorski mentions that Baby Doll helped an inmate escape. I am inclined to think that Rocket, Amber, and Blondie were real but were not killed -- probably they got caught and were punished in some way that ensured Baby Doll couldn't help them escape. Maybe they were lobotomized, or maybe placed under closer scrutiny, or transfered to another facility.

Lut thought that the bus scene was on layer two as well. I don't have any evidence that it was real, and the fact that both the Wise Man and the young soldier show up in it do argue for it being another fantasy. OTOH, Gorski *did* say another inmate escaped, so even if the bus scene wasn't real, that doesn't mean the escapee was caught.

One thing about all of the fantasy sequences -- I don't think they are meant to be Baby Doll's daydreams. Rather, they are a manifestation of actual insanity. They're a coping mechanism of a sort, a way for her to deal with what's happening to her, but she still has to deal, which is why they're still grim and sexualized, because she can't actually escape the threats she's under.
Mar. 27th, 2011 12:08 am (UTC)
Anyway, just to clarify, I certainly wasn't disappointed with the over-the-top action sequences. That's what I was there to see, I saw it, and it was cool. No problem.

The outer-fantasy layers held a bit of interest simply by the Inception-ish spin on things, but I felt like a little too much time was spent emphasizing again and again just how horrible the bad guy was and how much power he had over the girls.

But then, I might have been a little bit biased because I was sitting in front of some yahoos who laughed out loud heartily when the bad guy made a "joke" reference to the badly botched incident in the kitchen, and again with the "we hate snitches" (bam!) incident.

Am I supposed to enjoy that part of the movie on some sick level? Build up a level of hate so I can feel a "YEAH!" moment when the bad guy "gets it" finally? (Hey, near as I can tell, nothing happens to the evil step-father.)

But before I go off too far, let me get back to the awesome fight scenes. I'm spending a lot of time articulating things that I wasn't exactly comfortable with. There was a lot of cool on that level, and I don't want to overlook that at all.
Mar. 25th, 2011 02:44 pm (UTC)
My thought is only that some people have trouble with the idea of escapest fantacy. I will say from the reveiws it sounds like the same confusion I had over the movie Slaughter House Five the first time I saw it. I was 7 at the time but you know, some adults are as advanced as I was at 7.

I saw 300 and the only problem I had was that well... the graphic novel twists history too much. If you take the story on its own and not try to connect the dots to reality it is great.

I am planning to see Sucker Punch. When I first heard the name I did not even pay attention because it sounds like a buddy movie. But when I found out who was doing it and what the plot was OMG... yeah going.
(Deleted comment)
Mar. 25th, 2011 08:57 pm (UTC)
Yeah, about the only point I was ever confused on was (a) was her sister dead or only injured (I assumed dead) and (b) did she shoot her sister or had her stepfather already killed her? And those two are clearly explained by the doctor at the end. I guess one could argue that her stepfather killed her sister and then framed her for it (it's not clear to me how the bullet that shot out a ceiling light fixture ended up killing her sister on the floor). But there's no strong case for that.

The inner fantasy sequences were indeed full of awesome. Best excuse for skinny scantily clad young women to be kicking ass EVER.

Loved Scott Glenn. "Oh, and one last thing ... " Hee!

I am not sure how one could find the plot line confusing, unless the whole concept of "fantasy sequences" was somehow alien. It'd be like being confused by Walter Mitty.
Mar. 25th, 2011 10:44 pm (UTC)
I just got into a discussion about this in a City of Heroes global chat channel, and that discussion raised some good points. Was this movie really more confusing than Inception? Was it really any grimmer, or about characters you cared about less, than Black Swan? And yet they were both considered Oscar contenders.

The more I think about it, the more convinced I am that what is causing male reviewers (and I've only seen it reviewed, so far, by male reviewers) to pile tons of hate onto Sucker Punch is that the framing stories were such a buzz-kill that it totally killed the erection they thought they were going to walk out of that movie with after seeing the movie posters.
Mar. 25th, 2011 11:58 pm (UTC)
A little more ammunition for your "only male critics hate it" -- Betsy Sharkey's review, not unqualified but definitely positive.

I want to write about the gender themes in this movie, because there's kind of a surreality to it -- it's a movie that sexually exploits women with a theme that sexually exploiting women is horrible and dehumanizing. Yes, the framing stories are definitely buzzkill. This is not a criticism! It makes it more interesting than I expected, though.
Mar. 26th, 2011 12:50 am (UTC)
To be fair, it may just be the dissonance of "exciting action movie with girls kicking ass" to "story about rape".

I mean, that's a BIG tonal shift.
Mar. 26th, 2011 07:34 am (UTC)
Except that it isn't ... and that's what I think people failed to notice in the trailer before going in. The inner-fantasy action sequences are not played for laughs. Baby Doll imagines herself and her four accomplices grimly fighting for their lives; they may be supernaturally good at what they do, and they may not take much of a beating while they're doing it, but the odds against them are astronomical and the stakes if they lose are life and death, which is why you don't see them laughing and wisecracking their way through it.

No doubt in my mind that a lot of people would rather he had made the movie where the girls DO wisecrack and laugh their way through the perils of all three layers of the movie, though. I just can't imagine why they would expect that from the guy who made 300 and Watchmen.
Mar. 26th, 2011 03:41 pm (UTC)
I dunno. I see a serious difference between 300 (as an example) and what you describe above. I think the reaction is an aspect of the "violence is OK, sex isn't" angle of North American culture.

People are, generally, more OK with violence and also take it more lightly (with some caveats). It's why porn is porn and Saw and Hostel are mass entertainment.

So people walking in expecting physical violence (even semi-seriously-toned violence a la 300) and getting rape might be very disturbed.
Mar. 27th, 2011 07:48 pm (UTC)
As in "300 wasn't a laughy movie, but it's still of markedly different tone".
Mar. 30th, 2011 10:34 pm (UTC)
Um, rape IS physical violence. And that's true whether it involves guns and blood, or "just" that guy at the party spiking your drink and dragging you off into a corner. It's physical violence even if it's your boyfriend holding you down and fucking you while you cry and say no and eventually give up and hope he'll just finish soon.

Rape isn't "sex". It's assault and battery that happens to involve someone's genitals (usually).
May. 29th, 2011 02:30 am (UTC)
That's your opinion. It is not, I would suggest, the majority opinion of most people. Most people see rape as some separate kind of infraction that usually involves physical violence but can just be mental or emotionally violent. I would suggest that lumping rape in with generic physical violence would seem more than a little likely to desensitize people toward it. Among other things, most people will tell you there are perfectly acceptable occasions for physical violence...

The point of my comment was that the violence in 300 and the violence in Sucker Punch were different.

I notice that 9/10 of your comment appears to be a response to something I did not say, suggesting strongly that this is yet another example of a livejournal commenter projecting like all get out.
Mar. 26th, 2011 02:47 am (UTC)
I saw this last night with the anime club from the local community college. They all left complaining that it didn't make sense, had no plot to it, and that the fantasy action sequences were too unbelievable. I had a hard time biting my tongue at all of that.

There was a very definite plot. Not as deep as some movies, sure, but it was there. The only time in the entire movie I was confused was the first transition from reality to the brothel storyline. I quickly got what was going on, though, and it was plainly explained at the end.

As for the fantasy battles, I don't get how these anime fans can complain about unrealistic fantasy worlds. Number one, the scenes in this were no more unrealistic than any anime I have seen (and were better than most in my opinion). Second, the action sequences were all clearly advertised. It boggles my mind that the exact thing that was advertised to get you into the movie was also one of your biggest complaints.

All I know for certain is I am likely to see this again, and will definitely be adding it to my list of movies to buy when it comes out on dvd (something I do not do often anymore).

I did have one question though, what was your reason for leaving unhappy? You never really go into that and I am curious.
Mar. 28th, 2011 03:36 am (UTC)
If that confused them, get them to watch anything by Satoshi Kon. Wear a poncho for when their heads explode.
Mar. 28th, 2011 01:46 am (UTC)
Having just watched it, yeah, if the critics are confused about the order and structure of the movie, then they weren't paying any sort of attention to it.

As for the work itself, I'm guessing most people will like it or not like it based on how much they keep the frame story in mind while exploring the other fantasy layers.
Apr. 3rd, 2011 10:33 pm (UTC)
Thank you for writing this post, Brad.

I had been looking forward to seeing this film since I saw the trailer last November. However when the reviews came out I almost decided not to go. After reading you review I decided to go, and saw it in the bigger of the two IMAX theaters in NYC.

I absolutely loved it. I loved all three layers, and I think it has potential to develop a following after it comes out on home video and people can watch it over and over and debate where the layers are, etc.

I enjoyed reading all the replies (I held off from reading them until after I saw it). The only thing I can add is, "If people thought the brief outer layer sunk the whole film I hate to hear what you think of Wizard of Oz."
Jul. 9th, 2011 09:26 am (UTC)
Yeah, I know I'm slow, but what makes people think that all those fantasy layers are Baby Doll's? As for me they are the way Sweet Pea remembers what happened while in the back of a bus, that's why there is Wise Man identical to the bus driver, she inserts him into narrative after he helped her.
Nov. 22nd, 2011 05:26 pm (UTC)
I finally "get it"
Snyder films are like the smart girl pretending to be dumb to get attention.

I had to re-watch this movie a couple times to actually understand it. There are actually 4 levels of reality to this movie (not 3). I got the first 3 the first time around, but I was not prepared for the mind ass kicking of the (The Sucker Punch if you will)4th level.

1. Is the anime/fantasy/combat scenes
2. The Brothel
3. The 1957ish reality.

and the 4th wall

4. You, the audience goer. This is stated in the ending narration (plus the opening shot of the movie of the theater.) Thing are left open and vague for YOU to interpret them. This is such a foreign concept for a movie, most people just skim over it as an empowerment speech at the end. Once the credits roll this is YOUR movie, it is upto YOU to fill in the blanks.

Brilliant idea, just a flawed execution. The movie itself was not the greatest, and there were flaws and lack of emotional connection to the characters. But it is a much deeper movie than the critics give it credit for.

I give it a B+.
( 33 comments — Leave a comment )