Last night I went to see Sucker Punch.
I can review it in three words: not entirely awful.
In more words (and some spoilers!):
First of all, I liked some of it. I have a huge weak spot for steampunk, and so provision of a steampunk-inspired First World War, complete with Zeppelins, undead Germans and a big fuckoff mecha made me dance in my seat. I have long thought to myself: who’d win in a fight? A dragon versus an aeroplane? I was gratified to see that this burning question addressed in cinema. I was glad to see that Vanessa Hudgens had managed to be in a film marginally less shit than High School Musical. I quite fancy Jon Hamm, and he was in it a bit.
Sucker Punch was also quite funny, though I’m not sure if it intended to be. Parts of it felt like a deliberate parody of 300, which is one of my favourite cinematic deconstructions of masculinity, a macho mince along the tightrope between hegemonic masculinity and homoeroticism.* Some of the dialogue was so awful that I laughed out loud in moments which I can only hope were supposed to be a touching homage to the Death Tropes in TV Tropes.
In all, then, there was probably about 10 minutes of content I liked, and perhaps 30 minutes of content I half-enjoyed while still viewing the content as problematic. In a two hour film, that translates as Not Entirely Awful.
My main problem with the film was that an unfortunately large chunk of it was spent on a ghastly non-plot in which a young woman is forced into an asylum and threatened with lobotomy, except she’s really trapped working as some kind of stripper-prostitute, and she and the other girls want to break out and the main character uses her powers of sexy dancing inspired by badass dreams to make this happen, except it all fails miserably, and it doesn’t matter because that was also a dream and she was really still in the asylum all along and got lobotomised. Oh, and the character who didn’t want to escape escaped. That, really, is the plot. It was sort of like if One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest and Moulin Rouge had sex while Inception watched and Thelma & Louise wept quietly in a corner, except lacking any of the redeeming features of any of the above films.
The asylum scenes were passable, though riddled with cliché. It set up the story of a young woman named Baby Doll (this is the level of quality of character names in Sucker Punch), who has a tragic backstory involving a wicked stepfather who was one moustache short of playing a villain in a Victorian melodrama. It is he who places Baby Doll in the EVIL ASYLUM. You can tell it’s evil because there is thunder and lightning in the establishing shots. Evil Victorian Stepfather strikes a deal with an orderly, who you can tell is evil as he bears a resemblance to Lurch from The Adams Family, to have Baby Doll lobotomised so she will not remember the melodramatically Victorian acts of evil that he perpetrated.
In the asylum, we meet the ensemble cast of characters. Inmates wear a uniform of a short dress which is cut to enhance the classic hourglass shape. For some reason, never explained, the inmates are encouraged to dance through their drama.
Unfortunately for Baby Doll, she does not get to enjoy much of this charmingly menacing atmosphere as she is whisked off for a lobotomy and the scene changes to the evil brothel (you can tell it’s evil because everyone in there, except the goodies, are cartoonish villains).
One might guess that the setting changed to an evil brothel so that the characters could wear fewer clothes and it could be more sexy. However, guesswork is not required, as with an alarming lack of subtlety, at the scene change, a character declares that lobotomies and asylums just aren’t very sexy. That really happens. The film actually addresses the fact that fetishising mental illness is highly problematic, immediately after just having done it.
Thanks to this shift in tone, the audience is now treated to the characters perpetually dressed in underwear or fetishised schoolgirl costumes. Baby Doll is rather perturbed by her sudden situation in an evil brothel, and her purity is threatened: she has a few days before a nasty baddie will come and STEAL HER VIRGINITY. Fortunately for Baby Doll, at the sound of music she becomes teleported into a dream world where a wrinkly bloke informs her of how to escape. In the dream world, Baby Doll wears a much smaller fetishised school girl costume. She embodies the line that women are supposed to walk between whore and madonna: while dressed in a highly-sexualised fashion, she is fighting for her chastity and virginity.
Baby Doll shares her escape plan with her colleagues, who have equally silly names like Sweet Pea and Blondie (although, in what I am sure the writers thought was a subversive work of genius, Blondie has brown hair!). Some two-dimensional female bonding and terrible dialogue ensues. It is rather difficult to differentiate between any of the main characters based on any facets of their characterisation. The two main characters, Baby Doll and Sweet Pea, are differentiated only by the fact that the former wants to leave, while the latter does not.
Nonetheless, Sweet Pea manages to appear in all of the dream sequences.
Most of the plot ranges from dire to boring, and it is only the dream sequence segments which occupy the space between tolerable and actually quite fucking awesome. I would have enjoyed them rather a lot more were it not for the brazen objectification of women. While I have never fought dragons or leapt out of a helicopter, so do not know the accurate mode of dress for such an occasion, I am fairly sure it is not a tiny little skirt that blows up to show a whisper of knickers as one flies through the air with four inch stiletto heels. Jack Bauer certainly never bothered with that gear. Even Buffy had a tendency to wear sensible shoes and jeans.
One might suspect that the costuming was entirely an exercise in titillation.
A further rather problematic aspect of the dream sequences is that much of the action was undertaken by the three blonde characters. Blondie, the hilariously ironically-named brunette and the token ethnic character who never really does much, are consigned to the task of piloting helicopters, aeroplanes and big fuckoff mechas. While this is an admirable and necessary task, the director did not seem to feel it worthy of as much screen time as three lithe young blonde women showing their white flesh.
This fantastic review at Bad Reputation (who also hated it) suggests:
Oh yeah, and like a really unironic sucker punch (geddit?) I’ve just realised that this film totally passes Bechdel. Yeah. Woo. Way to perfectly prove that just because there’s more than one female character and that they manage to talk to each other doesn’t mean it’s any bloody good. Or even particularly feminist. Which this film isn’t, by the way.
Fortunately, it is such utter drivel that it won’t register as meaningfully anti-feminist because nothing it contains is meaningful or worth registering.
However, I find it concerning. I honestly believe that Sucker Punch believed itself to be a film about female empowerment, All The Girls Together fighting against oppression. It was nothing of the sort. Amid the rampant objectification of women and fetishisation of innocence and mental illness, the message came across as this: women! Use your bodies!
It was a shame, really. The plot could have been salvageable, were it not so hackneyed. The dream action sequences could have been amazing were they not so heavily focused on being an excuse to look at conventionally-attractive women’s bodies. It could have actually managed to be a film about the exploitation of mentally ill women, about sisterhood fighting oppressors. Dare I say it? It could have been a feminist classic if it were written by competent writers and acted by more competent actors.
As it stood, there were ten minutes that I liked. And those bits mostly involved a dragon chasing an aeroplane and not even trying to be sexy.
*I absolutely refuse to believe that 300 isn’t that silly on purpose.