This article contains major spoilers. Duh.
Okay, let’s get this out of the way right up front: Sucker Punch is not a perfect film. God knows there are enough righteous film critics and internet ass hats falling all over themselves to be the one to find the snarkiest, most condescending way to tell you as much. To listen to the vocal majority you’d think this film is the final herald of the Apocalypse. Yes, there are flaws, I’m not gonna lie. But despite the uneven script and occasionally insipid dialogue, I pretty much LOVE this movie. And I’m gonna tell you why.
A young girl, whom we only ever know as Baby Doll (Emily Browning), is institutionalized by her abusive pig of a stepfather and set to be lobotomized. To escape the girl retreats into what appears to be a dream, an alternate reality. Here she and the other girls from the hospital are dancers in a brothel. Still prisoners, but now with at least enough agency to use the small power afforded them, their sexuality, to survive. Baby Doll isn’t content with just surviving, however, and so she goes even deeper into her mind, to yet another reality, where she is set upon a quest to find five items that will ultimately lead her to freedom at last.
So there are three levels: Level 1, the real world; Level 2, the brothel; and Level 3, the quest world. Likewise, there are three interpretations of what this film actually is…
Level 1: Geek Porn
This is where you get if you only watch the trailers and TV spots. This is about as far as most viewers, based on the vapid reviews I’ve read, bothered to delve into Sucker Punch. This is the movie that is nothing but fan service, titillation, driving music, and speed ramped masturbatory SFX fight sequences. It’s a live-action anime film, and nothing more. Or so they’ll tell you. But even here, if this is as far as we go, this is a pretty damned awesome popcorn flick. The fight sequences, speed ramped and masturbatory or not, are thrilling. Giant demon samurai with rocket launchers and gatling guns? Check. Tiny, scantily clad “schoolgirl” armed only with a katana and a .45? Check. Fully destructible environments (to use the videogame parlance that is also used to ridicule the movie)? Check. A particular favorite sequence of mine involves the girls battling steam-powered zombie Nazis that don’t bleed when they’re shot or hacked with swords and axes, but rather vent steam. Stylistically alone it’s just badass, but there’s also a tremendous amount of genuine fight choreography here. All these young actresses are physical and dynamic and it’s clear to me they busted their asses to make the combat visceral. I think Snyder catches a lot of hell for his (over?) use of the slow motion speed ramp effects, and doesn’t get enough credit for what are actually very well choreographed “dances.”
So on one level you could just plop down in your seat, shovel greasy popcorn and caramel-colored beverage down your gullet, and just let the visual geek porn of hot chicks fighting dragons and robots wash over you. Some people love that (like me), others not so much (like most everybody else it seems).
However, there might be more here. Some folks say there’s…
Level 2: Feminism for Boys
I hadn’t been aware prior to the film’s release that this was an option, actually. But apparently it’s been hinted at for quite some time, and now explicitly argued by a few (a very brave minority) that the message of the picture is one of female empowerment. The idea that these young women are held firmly in that accursed male gaze in every aspect of their lives, no matter which “reality” they’re in, and yet manage to fight they’re way free (sort of, some of ’em) is proof that this is a feminist-friendly text. Right? Well *I* don’t have the faintest idea, since I can’t help but gaze as a male most of the time and have never been comfortable with whatever vague definition of the word feminism I’ve been offered. Personally I think these girls are empowered here. The men are almost without exception shown to be disgusting, misogynistic pigs. Virtually no XY chromosome character is painted in anything but the ugliest of lights. The women use their sexuality to fight back. I don’t think it’s impossible for women to be beautiful and sexual and still be strong. There’s an argument that’s been made that Snyder is luring the hapless male demographic into the theater with the promise of T&A and then showing them how truly revolting that exact kind of objectification of women can be. Theoretically the enjoyment us sexist pig guys should be getting from the video game burlesque show is tempered by the harsh realities of sexual objectification.
Or something. Seriously, I’m not smart enough to speak effectively on this subject. But others with better heads on their shoulders have written about this: Genevieve over at All Things Fangirl, Cole Abaius at Film School Rejects, and Adam Quigley at Slashfilm are all stunningly eloquent. (In the interest of presenting both sides of the debate, Slashfilm’s Angie Han makes a strong counter argument.)
For what it’s worth, my own wife, who is one of the smartest damn people I’ve ever known, was deeply moved by the feminist message she saw in the film on our first viewing of it. She was struck by the film’s depiction of women having to fight within only those fantasy worlds given them by men: samurai temple; steampunk zombie war; Lord of the Rings-style orcs and dragons; a sci-fi train robbery with robots. She felt the message (one message at least) of the piece was that women have to begin creating their own worlds, their own dream realities and geek action sequences.
But that, as I said, was our FIRST viewing of Sucker Punch. We actually paid to see it AGAIN. Which brings us to…
Level 3: Feed Your Head
Near the end of the film, our hero Baby Doll comes to the realization that this whole thing had in fact not been HER story, but rather that of one of the other girls, Sweet Pea (Abbie Cornish). She discovers the final item in her quest, the truth that she must sacrifice herself in order for anyone of them to escape and live free. And to all appearances that’s exactly what happens. Baby Doll gives her own life so that Sweet Pea, who had been a mostly reluctant participant in the elaborate escape plans to this point, could make her way past the guards and out into the “real world.” The last we see of Sweet Pea, she’s boarding a bus and riding off into the sunset of Paradise.
But that’s not necessarily what it seems to be. In fact, NONE of it is necessarily what it seemed to be. We’ve been assuming this whole time that the three levels the story is being told on include the real world that the film opens with, where the young girl is hospitalized by her stepfather after the death of her mother and sister. From there she retreats into two different levels of fantasy. Right?
Wrong. I believe that the entire film, all three levels are dreams or fantasies or whatever we want to think of them as. The movie opens with stage curtains parting to reveal a stage, with a woman sitting in a set of a bedroom. As the camera pulls in and circles this “actress” on the stage everything shifts into “reality” and all evidence of a stage and set gives way to Baby Doll and her actual bedroom.
Later, when Baby Doll is in the hospital, just as the doctor is about to perform the horrific lobotomy procedure (seriously, I need to research that and see if that is even remotely accurate to how that shit was really done) she casts her mind into the Level 2 fantasy world of the brothel. However, the scene in this level opens with Sweet Pea, wearing a blond wig and dressed in the same clothes Baby Doll was just wearing in the Level 1 hospital scene, on the stage in the brothel in the midst of rehearsing what is clearly a performance of the moment Baby Doll just escaped. So the camera cuts from Baby Doll about to be lobotomized to Sweet Pea on stage rehearsing a lobotomy scene. What does that mean? Well it might mean that the entire opening sequence of the film, what we’ve assumed was the real world from which Baby Doll needed to escape, is actually Sweet Pea’s backstory. Snyder is telling us pretty much up front that Sweet Pea is the real star of the picture, that this is her story. Baby Doll is just one of the supporting players.
The voice over narration at the beginning talked about everyone needing an angel, and how sometimes these angels come to us in our minds. That they appear to us in many different forms; one time an old man, another a little girl. They can even shout to us from the mouths of demons if need be. Baby Doll might be an “angel” come to save Sweet Pea.
Not literally. Although, maybe. But no, I’m not talking about literal angels here. Our theory (again, I must credit my frighteningly intelligent wife for first suggesting this reading after our second viewing of the film) is that the entire movie takes place in Sweet Pea’s head. My wife suggests that all the various characters in the story are aspects of, perhaps even multiple personalities of, Sweet Pea. The Wise Man that has been guiding Baby Doll and the girls from one quest to the next (played with full-on David Carradine mysticism by the great Scott Glenn) is Sweet Pea’s doctor in the REAL real world, the one we never get to see. He is guiding her, via therapy, towards an integrated mental state. The very final scene is of Sweet Pea boarding that bus to go home, having escaped the horrors of the mental institution. But it’s not the real world, is it? Boarding the bus immediately in front of her is the little boy that she shared a moment with in the earlier zombie war fantasy. There is a sign for the Paradise Diner, paradise being a word that popped up several times in the various dreamworlds. And most importantly, the bus driver is Scott Glenn. He clearly recognizes her for who she is, and even tells her cryptically that they have a long way to go (meaning the therapy is working but is a long way from over.)
And that’s it. That’s our take on Sucker Punch. Say what you will about Zack Snyder, but whatever his faults as a writer and/or director may be, I’m personally giving him props for putting what I believe to be a pretty fascinating layer (several actually) to what the vast majority of reviewers are casually dismissing as stupid and simple. I don’t think this movie sets feminism back to the stone age as some claim (preposterously.) At worst it’s a vapid but enjoyable panoply of geeky spectacles. At best it’s either a kind of subversive feminist treatise, or a sleight-of-hand study of a woman’s battle for mental health.
The film’s closing dedication was to Martha Snyder (I believe), with a date of death 2010. I have been assuming that’s Mr. Snyder’s mother. I’ve been unable to learn anything about her, but it wouldn’t surprise me if it turned out she had struggled with mental health in her life. From what I gather this film was a passion project of the director’s, something the studio allowed him to do in order to keep him happy enough to give them the Superman reboot they’ve been dreaming of. I certainly don’t mean this in any kind of slanderous way, because obviously I don’t know, and I have nothing but respect and empathy for those that struggle with issues of mental health. I simply wonder if that played any part in Zack Snyder’s passion for this project.
At any rate, whatever level Sucker Punch plays on for you, if you’ve only seen it once I strongly encourage you to go see it a second time. See if you notice any of the layers I mentioned.
Or maybe I’m just crazy.