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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.



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.