One of my FaceBook friends, whose opinions I respect, recently described the 2011 film Sucker Punch as weird but interesting, prompting me to wonder: just how weird is the film?
Mild spoiler alert: for those who haven’t seen it Sucker Punch is a fantasy thriller about a young woman named “Babydoll”, played by Emily Browning (she played Violet in Lemony Snicket’s A series of unfortunate Events) who is committed to a harsh mental hospital/prison by her abusive stepfather. Babydoll retreats into a fantasy world in which she is in control rather than those abusing her. Determined to fight for her freedom she befriends four other young women who have also been locked away and leads them in rebellion. Together they battle a series of comic book foes including samurai warriors, ninjas and Nazis.
Sucker Punch is certainly no run-of-the-mill movie. Even its genre is ambiguous. It weaves together elements of slo-mo Asian martial arts films like Hero or House of Flying Daggers, Video games like Lara Croft, Tomb Raider, Comic book films like Avengers and slightly bonkers steampunk films like The Extraordinary Adventures of Adèle Blanc-Sec. Over all this is a liberal sprinkling of Terry Gilliam style surrealism, fantasy and paranoia, especially that of Brazil, which Sucker Punch resembles in several ways and to which director Zak Snyder pays homage throughout the film.
Zack Snyder made his deservedly high reputation with two films. The first, 300 was a motion capture, graphic novel style retelling of how the Spartans defended the pass at Thermopylae against overwhelming odds. Watchmen was based on the Alan Moore graphic novel about the dark side of superheroes – including female characters who are as tough as the brutal male criminals who they defeat.
The film is visually so arresting that it would be easy to think that Sucker Punch was different from everything that has gone before. But Zak Snyder has left plenty of clues around to his sources of inspiration for film buffs to enjoy.
First, there is the Zen master to whom Babydoll turns in her imagination for wisdom and guidance. He is played by Scott Glenn bearing more than a passing resemblance to David Carradine – Kwai Chang Caine of Kung Fu fame – but now old, grey and dispensing wisdom, rather than the youthful “Grasshopper” of the TV series.
Then there is the escape into fantasy itself, complete with doing battle with monstrous enemies including a giant samurai warrior – lifted straight from Gilliam’s Brazil.
In its central theme, the film is pure Luc Bresson (Nikita, Leon, The Fifth Element, The Extraordinary Adventures of Adèle Blanc-Sec, and – most recently – Lucy.) Bresson’s films are the same tale recycled endlessly of a “helpless” young woman who rises to the challenge, often takes up violence, weapons and martial arts to become as tough as any man, and conquer her enemies.
There is also the highly successful Kick-Ass with the delightful and astounding Chloë Grace Moretz as Hit-Girl. And there is Hanna, the sixteen-year-old girl raised by her father to be the perfect assassin.
There have also been several recent highly successful films where the action takes place chiefly in the minds of its protagonists rather than in the “real” world – notably Shutter’s Island and Inception. And, once again, Gilliam’s Brazil is the progenitor of this trope (it was this that the studio didn’t get and objected to so strongly).
Perhaps even the film’s title is ambiguous. The bad guys of the story are victims of a sucker punch – they get a blow they didn’t see coming from someone they least expected to be dangerous. But we the audience are also suckers – we suspend our disbelief for 90 minutes and our popular cultural references are used against us to make us willing victims of an emotional rollercoaster ride.
The Rotten Tomatoes site didn’t like Sucker Punch much. From more than 200 critic reviews it distilled a score of only 4.1 out of ten and gave it only 23%. Rotten Tomatoes also seems to have been confused by the film’s genre, – listing it as “Action & Adventure, Mystery & Suspense, Science Fiction & Fantasy.” Interestingly the audience gave it a very much more respectable 47% rating.
I’m with the audiences on this one. Films should be first and foremost visually entertaining. When I want to engage my brain, I watch Samuel Beckett.
My conclusion is that, far from being weird, Sucker Punch is virtually the logical outcome of the last two decades of mainstream imaginative film making. I expect to see many more films that refer to Sucker Punch and attempt to emulate it.