Thursday, 7 April 2011

Sucker Punch

Hey all! Sorry for the...errr, dark last post, just felt the need to get down what I was thinking. To make it up for you, here's a new review.

Zack Snyder's status as the geekiest director to be largely disliked by geeks isn't exactly an enviable one. His Dawn of the Dead adaptation was interesting, if ill-realised, his 300 adaptation was flat, if meme-riffic, and his Watchmen adaptation was...well, it was fucking superb, but people were so determined to hate it that it's still gone down in infamy. For this, his first non-adaptation, the internet hate machine (no, not THAT one) was already fully powered up. Indeed, the first wave of reviews have largely panned it as flashy, superficial crap, the kind of mindless processed cheese which shouldn't get out of the studio in this day and age. They're missing the point spectacularly.

Of course, on a superficial level, the movie does have a lot on display. Sucker Punch, a phrase meaning a surprise attack, tells the story of Baby Doll, a girl banished to a corrupt insane asylum by her evil step-father following her mother and sister's deaths, as she seeks to escape, both mentally and physically. The tale of mental patients, imagining themselves as old-time prostitutes and dancers, imagining themselves as badass super-soldiers gives a lot to look at, certainly; rip-roaring action scenes which use their in-universe fictionality to whip up anime-esque Japanese temples, besieged castles, futuristic train jobs and steam-punk warzones, each offering the main girls' imagined selves a playground of baddies on which to show their violent, powerful sides. This is a film where scantily-clad badasses with sub-machine guns take on both sides of a Lord of the Rings-style battle while Search and Destroy plays in the background. That's all kinds of awesome by itself. The film itself uses a similar photography style to 300 and Watchmen, using heavy post-production to weave a sense of hyper-reality in the visuals, full of inky blacks and limited colour palettes. This allows Snyder to establish a sense of place with startling efficiency, and gets him showing off his action scene expertise in visually sumptuous combat sequences.

However, there is a lot more going on under the surface than the film has been given credit for. The hints at a greater underlying intelligence should have been clear, particularly in the subtle use of feminist themes. The film is one of the girls using their sex appeal to get the better of the men who have them trapped, in a way which clearly draws a parallel between the use of feminine sexuality and the power they display in the combat fantasies; of a violent, pragmatic, objective-based nature typical of male action heroes. Indeed, while the girls, in both the bordello and war-zone delusions, are very scantily or sexily attired, the camera never stoops to male gaze in order to pander to the males in the audience, instead choosing to shoot the girls like any other action hero. Again, their sexuality is analogous to the more typically masculine power gained through violence and pragmatism. Their femininity gives them power. Directorial choices like this make the accusations of exploitation on the part of the movie's detractors ring hollow.

Of course, a feminist reading still doesn't plumb the depths of this film. The central themes would be "seduction" and "escapism". Indeed, the film's aesthetic and narrative choices are largely informed by escapism. The story uses escapism as a motivation for it's dream worlds, with the characters' imaginations taking them away from the horror of their violent, degrading, sexually abusive asylum into places where they have power. The aesthetics and set-pieces, however, heavily borrow from OUR forms of escapism; films, videogames, comics, anime and the like. The futuristic train invasion is straight out of Firefly's "The Train Job", with elements of Final Fantasy XIII amongst others. The castle draws from both Lord of the Rings and the Dragon Age games. The WWI/WWII steam-punk battlefield is more than just reminiscent of Killzone (the enemies in particular look EXACTLY like the Helghast). The Japanese setting could be any anime or samurai film ever, realised as gorgeous live-action HD. This gives the audience a level of familiarity and comfort in these worlds that mimics the sentiments of the girls; these digressions are a welcome shift from the sincerely horrible mental hospital, and the only-slightly-better bordello, which draws us in with the characters with startling efficacy. Indeed, what of the film was delusion, and whose, is an issue which is left tantalisingly ambiguous.

The seductive elements are also at work both on the characters and the audiences. I won't say much, but keep in mind that the fanservice elements of the combat fantasies are there to appeal to the audience in the same way that the erotic dancing it represents is meant to appeal to the viewers, presenting a (rather self-effacing on Snyder's part) critique of geek culture, and rightly so, given that culture's recent, seismic expansion, thanks in part to Snyder and his contemporaries. Thus, the sucker punch of the title isn't just the tactic favoured by the girls in their escape, it's a philosophy which ultimately shapes the entire narrative structure.

The nuts and bolts of the film impressed me too. Emily Browning makes an underwhelming lead as Baby Doll, but one which admittedly grows in strength substantially as the film goes on. Jena Malone, unrecognisable from Donnie Darko, where I last saw her, makes Rocket a crowd favourite, and Abbie Cornish makes a startlingly compelling Sweet Pea. Vanessa Hudgens as Blondie shows off how her prowess as a dancer translates to great action sequences (She steals the scene in the trench warfare fantasy). Oscar Isaac makes for a great primary antagonist; it is Jon Hamm, however, who somehow becomes the only redeemable male character, despite ultimately being the threat at the heart of the movie as the "High Roller". The score is great, with mashups and covers of classic songs, with a notable emphasis on songs about dreams. As I mentioned earlier, a great cover of The Stooges' Search and Destroy was a personal favourite for me. The editing is sharp and well-judged, and the video quality is superb.

One thing to mention, however, is that this is a VERY DARK movie. How it got a 12 is beyond me. Indeed, to achieve this, several vital scenes had to be cut (particularly to get it past the MPAA), so it might be a good idea to wait for the Director's Cut home release, as it will almost certainly be the better version.

So yeah, not for everyone, ideal for the geeks in your life, much smarter than it at first seems, still great fun. I had a great night at the cinema with it, and you may well do too.

No comments:

Post a Comment