Sucker Punch (2011) - Can't Stop the Movies
Can't Stop the Movies
30Jun/113

Sucker Punch (2011)

Note: Sucker Punch is the rare re-visitation of a film that we have covered previously.  But I missed it the first go-around and it is well worth it if you're in for a challenge on DVD this weekend.

Sucker Punch deserves to be remembered as one of the most subversive and angry attacks pointed against the patriarchal structure of the film industry.  Zack Snyder delivered exactly what he promised with the initial trailers.  You want your zombie Nazi fight sequences?  Fine, have at it and enjoy the slow-mo dance of skeletal destruction in the meantime.  You want cheap titilation?  Bully for you!  Here's a film where the principal cast members spend most of the run-time in hot-pants, short skirts and thigh-high boots.

Snyder made a film with exactly what was promised and suddenly the whole of the world turned against him, much like it's prone to do when something is commenting on what they've learned to enjoy without thinking.  He did this by making each area of presentation so uncomfortably precise and toying with our expectations of the various levels of "nerd" culture that the question has to be asked.  Just what is Snyder doing with Sucker Punch?

It's something that I think Ryan missed the point of in his initial review.  This makes Sucker Punch the most debated movie here at Can't Stop the Movies and with good reason.  Snyder has been making some of the most blatantly subversive films of the last 10 years whose satiric qualities fly right over the heads of the audiences that they're meant to capture.

If you want a plot recap, saunter over to Ryan's article and give it a gander.  I'm going to use this space for a bit of good ol' fashioned analysis.

There are three levels of reality in Sucker Punch.  There is the asylum that makes a brief appearance in the opening and closing scenes, a burlesque hall where girls dance under penalty of rape and death, and a "fantasy" world where our heroines do CGI-heavy battle against all the modern "nerd" cliches (steampunk robots, Nazi-zombies, demonic samurai, dragons and so forth).  One question many reviews have raised is to which level of reality is the "real" real and which of the other two are illusions.

This distinction is completely meaningless in the context of the film.

Snyder, ever the amazing director, works between the different layers of reality with supercharged genre-appropriate visuals.

No matter which level of reality is considered "real" that means that there are two other levels of reality that the girls have to escape to in order to be objectified in a completely different way.  Either it's the threat of lobotomy in the asylum, rape in the burlesque hall, or forced to do eternal battle in combat-inappropriate attire in the "dream" sequences (which are really "dance" sequences).  Taken literally, it means that whichever layer is "real" requires them to construct a fantasy that is horrible in an entirely different fashion.  Escaping pain by delving into more pain doesn't solve the real problem of objectifying women in movies, and Snyder understands this by constructing his plot as such.

But this being a visual medium it can only serve his point so far through story construction.  So look at the visuals of each location.  The asylum sequences are sadness porn pushed to the extreme with stylistic storms so prevalent they look like they escaped from Seven.  The burlesque hall is glitter and tease with no real opportunity for release.  The "fantasy" battles are endless ballets where hyper-kinetic fighting yields no real injuries, just more battles.  Snyder opens with the intense melodrama of the asylum to highlight the heightened non-reality of the other two sections.  By opening in a style that was not expected, especially since everyone turned in expecting schoolgirls crushing robots, he's asking the very simple question of "Why do any of us find this enjoyable?"

It's right there in the dialogue when Babydoll asks "Don't you get the point of this?  It's to turn people on." in response to her reenacting the asylum sequences in the burlesque hall.   The subtext of that statement goes back to that question, why do any of us find this attractive and why has an entire culture built up around it?  Snyder's attack on why we find this enjoyable isn't limited to just the "nerd" culture.  The asylum sequences could have come from any number of "serious" films (think Crash and it's horrific molestation of Thandie Newton's character Christine) where exploitation is treated as advance and no one looks at the structure that holds these films in check.

Snyder's greatest sin in the eyes of many was to turn the mirror back on us and force everyone to ask the question of enjoyment.  You need only look at one of the most visceral images in the film of Babydoll about to be lobotomized and see the subtext.  "This is so wretched in the way women are treated in movies that you would need a lobotomy to enjoy it."  We watch Babydoll, Babydoll watches us, and we allow ourselves to become brain-dead as we are taken into the more distinctly "pleasurable" worlds of orc killing and dancing.

If this movie took you out of your comfort zone it's a good time to start asking why.

The only place that women are allowed to fight back against the prevalent symbols of patriarchy is in the the fantasy realm where the phallic symbols are so prevalent (the penis-nosed samurai comes to mind) that it becomes bitterly juxtaposed with the images of these girls doing battle in their short skirts.  "Yes," many films say, "you can fight against the system so long as you are sexy doing so."  Then they get so depressed doing this they end up preferring another world where death is certain or lobotomy is near.  This is a horrible state of affairs and Snyder's film is important in the unapologetic way it approaches the problem.

So, did I enjoy watching Sucker Punch?  Well, there was a sequence that I laughed long and heartily at where Snyder gets to poke at the homophobic subtext of worshipping men in power where a high-ranking senator in a long fur coat and bumpin' soundtrack shares the only consensual kiss in the film with his male aide.  He smokes a large cigar afterwards.  How do people miss this stuff?

But overall, I am terrified of the person that really enjoys this film on the level of pure visceral stimulation.  It's so deliberately pointed in it's attack on various levels of film culture that the presentations begin to take on a scary reality of their own.  If this is what we enjoy then we are failing as a species that prides itself on it's art.  There aren't easy solutions, and to be fair Snyder's film doesn't really offer any of it's own other than illuminating the structure, but part of the point is to start asking the questions.

Question your art, question why it is you enjoy something every step of the way, and look at the effects that it has on the way people around you are presented.  I've just about had it with the rape and murder of women in films as a means of cheap titillation and Snyder is in much the same camp.  If we can't refine ourselves by examining the structure and bettering the art, then what's the point?

Sucker Punch (2011)
Directed by Zack Snyder.
Screenplay by Zack Snyder and Steve Shibuya.
Starring Emily Browning, Abbie Cornish, and Jena Malone.

Posted by Andrew

Comments (3) Trackbacks (0)
  1. Andrew: I’m sorry buddy, but you just reposted your review instead of responding to mine. Comments sprinkled throughout.
    I still believe this is one of the most deplorable, ugly, dull and badly conceived films made in the last few years. By far the worst movie I have seen this year and a film lacking any deep context. The truth of the matter is the film is about a woman who doesn’t want to be lobotomized so she pretends she is a stripper/prostitute, when she realizes that the possibility of being raped isn’t a better option, she joins video game land. Snyder is not trying to subvert the genre or say anything deeper than the surface.

    But you’re not really digging beyond the surface at what’s going on. I know you like to analyze, but this is one of the first movies I’ve seen in a long time that really forces the audience to work at what’s going on. Part of the whole backlash against this film is how much people just wanted a good time and got a challenging question of “Why do you like this kind of stuff?” I think this next part you write highlights that.

    I also think the movie was constructed horribly, without any internal logic to aid the audience in following what happens. Why can Baby Doll create these alternate realities? How real are these levels within the world that the movie creates? I have no idea because the movie didn’t bother to explain any of this, leaving the audience to constantly question/wonder what is going on or to give up and just look at the pretty pictures. I know you didn’t like Inception, but in that film, the world and the different realities had RULES and CONSEQUENCES, something that was not evident in this film.

    A big problem I have with Inception was how it introduced all these rules to showcase how meaningless the structure of anything is, subverting it’s own structure in the process and leaving us with an hour and a half of arbitrary opening leading into a typically explosive finale. Plus, why do the internal rules of Sucker Punch have to be explained, especially since the trailers promised brainless good time? This movie isn’t nearly on the level of a Persona, but that film doesn’t explain it’s reality either and no one is left wondering why there isn’t a hard explanation of how two people could become one or how film can crack when we’re supposedly watching “reality”.

    Or, more to the point, would the movie really be any better worse if there was a scene where Babydoll said “Oh, just so you know, I have world-altering superpowers”. What explanation could the film possibly give to make it better?

    Other ways this film failed miserably:
    1. The VO that shows up every once in awhile reminded me of Alone in the Dark because it seems pasted on at the end because no one would know what was going on without it.
    You have to remember what she’s actually saying. Very rarely is the voice-over actually commenting on what’s happening directly onscreen and it’s certainly not doing any hand holding. Instead it’s a bunch of half-hearted “You have to keep fighting” platitudes designed to comment on the exasperation these women feel at being forced into three different cliches (misery-porn, cheap titilation, and action vixen).

    2. Would you admit that you liked this film without having to explain why? I doubt you would because I love you and Danny for seeing something deeper in the film but there is no denying that the story itself, as presented, is all kinds of deplorable.
    Your question here confuses me. I have to explain why I like everything, we’re critics, it’s what we do. You say there’s no denying that the story is deplorable but you’re still approaching it a very surface level approach without really examining how the images are playing together.

    3. This movie reminds me of Nine in that it was segments of seemingly different films are scotch taped together with the flimsiest of a screenplay and an idea that is not seen through to the end.
    The fact that they’re seemingly (key word there) unrelated films scotch-taped together ignores how they’re bonded together. Example, any time we’re about to watch someone dance in the burlesque world we go into another overblown fight scene – expectation of titilation, result of mindless violence pushed to the sanitized extreme. We’ve been trying to answer why Snyder does this.

    4. The swerve in the last few minutes from one main character to another is not earned and a cheap device. I know (spoiler alert) that some people believe the whole movie was from Abbie Cornish’s POV, but show me in the film where that was alluded to before the end.
    How does it matter whose point of view that this was really from – especially if it’s commenting on the entire system of patriarchy in movies?

    5. The movie is soft-core porn mixed with MTV and a dash of magna. Any notion of it being about “female empowerment” is laughable in my mind and I honestly felt bad for the actresses.
    This isn’t even close to soft-core Ryan, I mentioned the only consensual kiss (or even remotely sexy moment) in my analysis. I also think you’re way off-base by thinking that it’s about female empowerment to begin with. This is my favorite quote about that
    “Like the obvious subtext of the plot, as we understand it so far, is that simply believing that you’re a super-powerful warrior goddess may not be worth much when the patriarchy is about to have you lobotomized for hysteria or something in reality.”
    Or, to put another way, it’s about how the notion of directors plying about “feminist empowerment” is laughable when the alternative to misery porn is stripping or fighting while dressed like a tempting schoolgirl.

    6. I am a big fan of Snyder but I feel like this film feels like more of an Eli Roth film than Snyder’s.
    How? This sentence doesn’t mean anything. All the “real” violence is kept entirely off-screen, keeping in line with the whole “Sucker Punch” the title promises. Show me the scene where one of the characters gets sliced in half from genitals to chest with a scythe and you may have something here.

    A movie compared to Alone in the Dark, Nine and Eli Roth is a big disaster in my book. He might have had ambition for this film which is commendable but it is a noble failure.

    I think a more direct rebuttal of the points me and Danny have made wouldn’t be entirely uncalled for. Yeah, anyone going in expecting an exciting flick is going to be disappointed. But the title of the movie is called Sucker Punch, and then he goes and gives everything promised in a way that’s made lot’s of people uncomfortable.

  2. It is softcore in the way that it shoots all the women in the film. Never has a movie been more in love with the upper thighs of a woman or slowing up the shot when a woman is in mid-flip so there is a a good old fashioned “panty shot.” The whole movie reeks of a man filming the fantasies of a boy who watches anime and only has sex on the brain. It reminds me of Eli Roth not in the violence but the way he treats all women. I don’t see Snyder being tricky or subverting the genre in anyway, I see him objectifying women. I felt dirty watching the film like I did after watching the scene in Hostel 2 where the women is split in two naked (which was the point I turned off that film). I can’t really argue with your or Danny’s points because you think that Snyder directly made these choices while I vehemently believe he just made a bad film. I can’t argue with what you see or believe and if you see an added layer of the film or think Snyder was purposefully making commentary, I honestly wish I could see what you do, because I would love to enjoy this film on some level.
    Andrew: What kind of boy has fantasies about lobotomizing women in an asylum?

    “The whole movie reeks of a man filming the fantasies of a boy who watches anime and only has sex on the brain.”
    You are so close to actually getting it right now it hurts me. Snyder decided to give them exactly what they want in the most direct fashion possible, it’s disgusting and he’s playing with that the entire movie. Anime/sex on the brain is the only kind of person that would shy away from any kind of expression of real sex (which is why it cuts away before each of those dances) and retreat into a superhero realm of near nudity and explosion. He does this so directly and places them into so many moments they’re fighting phallic creatures it becomes obvious that he hates anime/sexed up idiocy as much as you do. Why make the creatures so phallic if this isn’t part of the point?

    Snyder pretty much made the biggest troll movie ever, shying away from enough exploitation to feed the unfortunate anime/explosion/sex crowd and playing with the images just enough to make the typical critical circles turn themselves over in the chance to say “nothing but skirts and exploitation”. Which, for whoever is calling it that, is buying into it instead of refuting it with the same anger Sucker Punch does.

  3. He essentially wants to do for Sucker Punch what Michael Haneke and Quentin Dupiex successfully did with their respective films Funny Games and Rubber. He wants to make a film that comments on peoples love for violence and sex, while being a film about violence and sex. However, unlike those other directors, he fails miserably. There is no need for the fantasy level at all. He could have set the film entirely in the asylum level, or entirely in the brothel level, and his commentary may have come across a lot better.

    Besides reviewing the film on my site, I also discussed the film on an old episode of the LAMBcast podcast. We talk about Snyder’s interview on The Film School Reject site about the film:

    http://bigthoughtsfromasmallmind.blogspot.com/2011/04/adventures-in-podcasting-lambcast-63.html

    Andrew: Thanks for the comment. I really like that you brought up Funny Games and Rubber in conjunction with Sucker Punch here. All three films have the same violently polarizing effect. I don’t think I’ve met anyone who just likes one of those movies it’s either a love, hate, or almost resented respect.

    I haven’t seen Rubber, so I can’t comment there (though my associate Jacob didn’t care for it too much), but Funny Games is an interesting one. I have a little less respect for the execution there than for Sucker Punch because of how Haneke makes absolutely sure that you know what he’s doing. There are way too many direct comments to the audience and considering how wonderfully subtle Cache’ and The White Ribbon are it’s something of a disappointment. It’s still great, but I wish it was less direct.

    As for Sucker Punch, if Snyder had confined the film to anyone one level it wouldn’t have been nearly as ambitious in it’s commentary. The idea was to show how these gender portrayal issues weren’t just limited to one genre, the obvious one, and spread out to even the most self-consciously “arty” fare. All three levels are equally real and the film becomes a test of seeing which one the characters would rather escape to in the end. Well, in the end they’re all equally horrible, and we end on a final shot that mixes all three in a way that dulls the pain as much as possible without completely eliminating it.


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