Strange Little Girls

I was more than a little apprehensive about going to see Sucker Punch, the latest movie from Zack Snyder, who is white of teeth and lantern of jaw and looks every inch the American quarterback. I both enjoyed and admired his previous jawn Watchmen, not only because I read the graphic novel in my impressionable teens (and again in my jaded twenties) and loved it but also because the adaptation was so faithful. Impressively, Snyder chose not to pander to the audience, choosing instead to weave a visually stunning, narratologically complex story which played out on multiple layers. Whereas other movies, particularly those leaping from the Superhero canon, spoonfeed the audience with exposition and clunky monologues explaining backstory, motivation and so on, Watchmen was much more obtuse. It demanded that the audience keep pace with its slow and at times unwieldy plot. I respect that greatly. Here was a film which did not pander to the viewer and credited us with more than a modicum of intelligence. Not that it was short on spectacle. Some of the action, particularly the pow-wow in a high security prison, was fantastically choreographed and brutally violent.

This should explain in part why I was on edge when sitting down for the Belfast press show of Sucker Punch. I try not to take notice of advance reviews of films, mostly because they are packed full of spoilers, but in this instance I had heard nothing but bad things. Snyder’s film – and, such is the way of the press, Snyder himself – has already received a critical drubbing, the kind of venom normally reserved by movies made by at best Uwe Boll or at worst Michael Bay. This did not bode well. The sticking point for many was not, as one might expect, the throwaway, videogame inspired action scenes in Sucker Punch, which place more importance on CGI, wirework and gunplay than anything resembling a coherent story arc. Rather, it was the fact that all of the main roles (such as they are: we’ll get to that in a second) are played by women. Specifically, attractive women in their early twenties. This, predictably, has brought a wave of harsh criticism uncannily reminiscient of the reception which greeted Kick-Ass around a year ago. As in that movie, it is not a concern about the level of violence depicted but a dangerous tightrope walk between titilating and sexually immoral. We’ll get to that in good time. Before that, a brief summary of the plot.

It’s 1955. Our twenty-year-old heroine “Baby Doll” (Emily Browning, as previously seen in Lemony Snickett) is imprisoned in the Lennox House for the Mentally Insane, a less hospitable Arkham Asylum where the chief staff and their underlings do not care for bedside manner. Here, conditions are cured by lobotomies and misbehaviour is amended by a quick trip to “the closet”. So far so Girl, Interrupted but that is where the comparison ends. For reasons which we will not go into, largely because the scriptwriters don’t really go into them either, Baby Doll disappears into a parallel universe / fantasy realm / alternate reality, taking some of her inmates with her: Rocket, Sweet Pea, Amber and Blondier. The latter is played by, of all people, Vanessa Hudgens. Yes, the girl from High School Musical.

Said fantasy realm is a seedy, sub Moulin Rouge brothel run by the mob, headed up by a jumped-up kingpin whose style is half indebted to Al Pacino, half to Kid Creole. This character is an avatar for one of the orderlies from the asylum. In fact, all of the people from the asylum have other identities in the feathery, red velvet lined dancing club.

Admittedly, none of this sounds like something a grown man should be writing about. Or watching, for that matter. But then all plots sound ridiculous when you write them down. For example: a geeky high school student who becomes a maverick crime fighter after being bitten by a radioactive spider? Two little hairy people who carry a magical ring up the side of a volcano? Anything with Nicolas Cage’s name attached to it.

It only gets weirder. Baby Doll then creates further fantasy worlds inside the first one, which will no doubt lead lazy critics to say that it has a structure just like Inception. The hacks. These flights of fancy seem to come about when she dances, most often to anachronistic versions of The Smiths and The Pixies. The first world – or level, to keep the videogame analogy – features the girls fighting steampowered, clockwork German Zombies in World War 1 trenches whilst inside a giant Mecha-Robot.

If that sounds madder than a box full of wags then that’s because it is. At this point at least three people in the press screening left the cinema, shaking their heads in disbelief and mutter mutter muttering about the kind of tosh and nonsense which gets churned out these days. The action is ridiculous, the explosions, shouting and swashbuckling pushed along by the Frat Metal soundtrack booming out of the surround speakers. But then it is supposed to be ridiculous. This is all of Zack Snyder’s teenage daydreams writ large on the big screen. Later, we will see the girls gunning Halo like robots on a speeding train whilst trying to defuse a Nuke, or dogfighting a dragon in a World War II plane.

It is, as we have already established, tosh and nonsense. But it is enjoyable tosh and nonsense. Call it a guilty pleasure if you will but I couldn’t help revelling in the tosh-nonsensical nature of it all. Snyder, clearly, is having a ball, along with his cast, none of whom appear to be fighting clockwork Zombies against their will.

There is, however, a problem, namely the costumes Baby Doll and her cohorts wear for the film’s entirety. Being so in thrall to all things Manga and old school games like Final Fantasy, Sailor Moon and Dead Or Alive, Snyder has decided to dress all of the female characters in ill-fitting outfits. This might work in the world of Anime but when you put them on real people it does have a tendency to look salacious. Snyder, along with his producer missus, might carp that this is a comment on the objectification of actresses onscreen, but in reality it is simple exploitation. There is no way to defend that and I am not going to attempt to do so. The film certainly makes no apology for it.

More worrying is the amount of misogyny and sexual violence which runs through Sucker Punch. It’s not so much subtext as text: Baby Doll is locked up because she kills an innocent person whilst defending herself against her abusive father; the girls in the asylum are subjected to all kinds of degrading, leering talk and treatment where, in an odd kind of reverse sexism, all the men are portrayed to be lecherous sleazeballs who clearly were not brought up right by their mothers. Some might argue that this is reading too much into Sucker Punch but it is worth noting that this is Snyder’s third film in a row to incorporate imagery of rape. That’s more than a coincidence.

There is no arguing against the fact that these scenes leave a sour taste in the mouth, one which does not sit so well with the popcorn-flavoured fluff of the rest of the film. Even more unusual is the fact that Sucker Punch has been granted a 12A certificate. Even though the film is entirely bloodless and devoid of swearing the constant presence of implied violence makes this seem like an oversight. I am personally all for censorship and age ratings when they are handled correctly but I couldn’t help feeling that the BBFC dropped the ball in this case.

There is also the persistent feeling that a LOT has been cut out in order to receive such a lenient stamp. A little googling will tell you that this is indeed true, most notably a series of gonzo dance sequences. These will be reinstated on the Director’s Cut DVD but it will be interesting to see how Snyder and his team will handle the same material when allowed another pass at it. I sincerely hope that they remove a lot of the unnecessary leering and drooling from the Asylum’s greasy cooks and orderlies as you only really need to see that sort of thing once to get the point.

In short then, Sucker Punch is by no means another Scott Pilgrim, whose non-stop geeky references frustrated me no end and I am the biggest geek around, but it’s certainly no Watchmen or Dark Knight. I know that I enjoyed it more than I should have done but after thinking about it I don’t know if I’ll be in too much of a rush to watch it again.

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