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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 12:50 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.