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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. 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.