Pity the poor workaday film critics who have to make sense of something like Sucker Punch. They have to stand and deliver a logical assessment of this crazed, three-headed Ghidorah of a film; they have to persuade their editors that they aren’t immature enough, attention-deficit-disordered enough, to fall for such heavy-breathing juvenilia. Perhaps the majority of critics are simply being honest when they say that they feel battered and annoyed by Sucker Punch, that it portends the death of movies, that its hotshot director Zack Snyder (300, Watchmen) should be sent to his room without supper. I, too, must be honest, and I can opine with very little reservation that Snyder has constructed a right-brain classic, a coruscating work of pure cinema that, at times, plays as though some brave loon at Warner Brothers handed Snyder the keys to an $82 million art-house oddity.
The story is a wheel within a wheel within a wheel, and I can imagine fans and non-fans alike working earnestly to parse the levels of reality and fantasy — what “really” happened, what “real-life” event has a “fantasy” analogue. The easy answer is that nothing in Sucker Punch “really happened.” It’s a movie. Duh. From there we can simply read the film as Snyder’s riff on themes of freedom, escapism, and institutional (the pun is and isn’t intended) sexism. In the run-up to the film’s release, Snyder went around saying things like (regarding the heroines’ peekaboo techno-fetish garb) “I didn’t dress them that way. You did.” The girls are dressed that way because ass-kicking girls in action movies have to be hot, as per the demand of the audience. Thus Snyder has made, in part, a movie that critiques other movies, just like Godard advised us to do. You don’t like Sucker Punch? Direct your own answer to it.
Godard’s confrere Truffaut said, “The film of tomorrow will not be directed by civil servants of the camera, but by artists for whom shooting a film constitutes a wonderful and thrilling adventure,” and Sucker Punch is that, if nothing else. The quintet of girls flip in and out of massive set pieces resembling nothing so much as a boy’s epic combat play with a wide assortment of action figures from a dozen different toy lines. The girls are plunked into that universe like Barbie dolls, except they’re lethal Barbie dolls. The lead character (Emily Browning) is even named Baby Doll, and the others have names like Sweet Pea and Blondie. Nobody except Snyder named the girls; nobody except Snyder put them in the situations they’re in, so the movie is also a gigantic critique of Snyder’s own ain’t-it-cool aesthetic.
The girls, on a videogame-like mission to find various objects that will earn their freedom, don’t seem to feel much terror or joy in battle. They are emotional only in the setting of the burlesque house and brothel they’re “really” in, which may be a fantasy extension of the asylum they’re “really” in. What they’re “really” in is a movie called Sucker Punch that conceptually robs them of their dignity and humanity much as the male-fronted brothel/asylum does. But Snyder has cast the girls shrewdly, and the near-wordless Emily Browning, eyebrows perpetually knitted in anguish, compels us to lean forward and know what she’s feeling. Her cohorts — tough-minded Abbie Cornish, sympathetic Jena Malone, conflicted Vanessa Hudgens and Jamie Chung — breathe life into their archetypes.
There’s a final betrayal of complacent audience expectations — the twist that gives the movie its name and probably served as the straw that broke the critics’ backs. Zack Snyder is wading deeply into meta-fiction here, toying roughly with storytelling itself. But always, always he seeks to entertain, to mount dazzling sequences set to the heavy insistent march of Björk’s “Army of Me” or various rock-classic covers. I’ve run hot and cold on Snyder; Watchmen impressed me, his other stuff didn’t. But this wild beast, whether he even fully understands it himself, is indeed the death of a certain kind of movie — the death and ne plus ultra at the same time, the apocalyptic orgasm that kills everything.
How can we take action cinema, or babes-with-guns flicks, remotely seriously (if we ever could) after Sucker Punch? Snyder has created a monument to entertainment that he loves but, presumably, hates himself for loving. It is both a guilty pleasure and the original wellspring of guilt, plumbing the melodramatic Prozac-porn of Sylvia Plath and Girl, Interrupted and 4 Non Blondes’ “What’s Up” to remind us of what Swoosie Kurtz had to tell us in The Positively True Adventures of the Alleged Texas Cheerleader-Murdering Mom: “Crazy women are made by crazy men.” Crazy movies are, too. And sometimes great movies.