A young girl is institutionalized by her abusive stepfather. Retreating to an alternative reality as a coping strategy, she envisions a plan which will help her escape from the mental facility.
The premise for Sucker Punch is strong enough. Abused orphan Babydoll (Emily Browning) is locked up in an asylum for the criminally insane and has to find a means of escape, aided by four other inmates. The execution of this premise, however, is so convoluted and overplayed as to render the film almost as redundant at the moral it strives desperately to put across.
Spread across three levels of reality, the Evanescence-music-video real world, the trying-to-be-Chicago-so-much-it-hurts mental ward/dance hall world, and the every-bad-video-game-ever-made world of Babydoll’s quest. Each reality is less engaging than the last. The film’s opening and ending sequences, which take place in reality (or as close to it as the film ever comes) are definitely the most successful, establishing a level of darkness and brutality which would have greatly improved the film had it been continued throughout.
All too quickly the film moves into the mental asylum, and the rest of the narrative takes place in a kind of Moulin Rouge meets One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest sub-reality, where the incarcerated girls must dance in their underwear in order to be cured of their mental illness. Babydoll has five days before she is sold to the High Roller (Jon Hamm) (in reality the doctor coming to lobotomize her), and must find five objects to help her and the other girls escape. You see more of the asylum’s sinister head orderly, Blue (Oscar Isaac), and therapist Madam Gorski (Carla Gugino), in this world transformed into a club owner/pimp, and dance teacher/madam respectively. While Madam Gorski seemingly serves no purpose whatsoever apart from to provide another pair of breasts for teenage boys to ogle, Blue provides the film with a credible and genuinely creepy bad guy, thus becoming the only vaguely interesting character in the exercise.
When Babydoll is forced to dance she enters the third and most ridiculous world. The setting changes each time she and the other girls enter, moving from snowy ancient Japan, to the First World War, to cheap Lord of the Rings fantasy. Each of these interludes seem somehow both overdone and under-finished, pairing over-long action sequences with sub-par computer game graphics and hokey moralizing from the Wise Man (Scott Glenn). All these scenes include robots. While the first two levels of reality provide at least a little insight into character or narrative, this third level seems created exclusively for a mindless pubescent audience interested only in guns and tits. The film spends most of its time in this state.
It is a shame that Zack Snyder should fall so far from his previous cinematic exploits. While 300 certainly wasn’t the most intellectual of films, it was beautifully rendered and engaging for audiences whether they were familiar with the comic or not. Similarly with Watchmen; regardless of how you feel about the changed ending, the care Snyder took with the source material was clear. Here he is working from his own story, and seems perfectly content to abandon characterisation or plot development in favour of yet another shot of his young cast in their pants. It took over an hour for me to grasp the names of the central characters, but I doubt I’ll ever fully gather why they were involved in the film at all.
Emily Browning is good enough as Babydoll, looking as she does like an anime character come to life. She’s given enough to do but spends most of the film looking miserable and big-eyed while dressed as a schoolgirl with a samurai sword. Jena Malone and Abbie Cornish turn in solid performances as sisters Rocket and Sweet Pea, leaving the audience wondering what two such credible indie actresses are doing in this brainless mess; ditto for Jon Hamm, the two minutes he’s on screen are genuinely intriguing, but you’re left wondering what such a classy guy is doing in such a piece of crap. Jamie Chung and Vanessa Hudgens look good in lingerie, but serve no purpose to the story, and thus are given practically no dialogue and even less character development.
All in all the film takes a decent premise and a handful of good actors, and places them in a horny emo music video. Too earnest to be funny, not smart enough to be good, what we are left with is a mess of poorly executed action sequences and an ill-defined and almost comically inappropriate message about empowerment. Snyder has proved himself as the man to go to for solid comic book adaptations, but when working from his own material he is sadly lacking in both focus and flare.