Friday, March 25, 2011

The Victimized Badass: Some Thoughts on Zack Snyder's Sucker Punch.

I've seen the latest opus of director Zack Snyder and let me say this up front: the man knows his cinema. I'll happily give credit where it's due, and Snyder is easily one of the most seamlessly adept genre filmmakers I've ever seen. Since Dawn of the Dead back in 2004 the man has shown a unique talent for conveying action and emotion through his visuals, harnessing the unique talents of the production team under his command to bring amazing things to light. Hell, he made the cinematic adaptation of Watchmen, a comic book I'd believed to be completely unfilmmable, transforming the epic into a new entity while simulataneously paying homage to it's prose and picture counterpart. The same can also be said for 300, his rich and glorious adaptation of Frank Miller's sword and sandals epic.

Simply put, the man can make movies, and when I heard he'd be creating his own unique story in the form of Sucker Punch, and seeing the bits and pieces doled out in teaser trailers and one-sheets, I was on board. I eagerly sat in my seat at an advanced screening, keen to see what Snyder could do with his psyche completely unbound, free to create without having anything to adapt. I saw the film, sat with it, then saw it a second time today. I've had some time to turn the film over and over in my head and I have to say that while it is an impressive spectacle, the film has also done something it clearly didn't intend: it ticked me off. Sucker Punch is the most amazing mysoginist film featuring strong women I've ever seen.

The plot (what there is of one) centers around Baby Doll (played by Emily Browning), a teenaged girl whose mother dies and finds herself and her sister the sole heirs to her mother's estate. This doesn't sit well with their stepfather, who in a drunken tirade kills the younger sister and pins the rap on Baby (we never get any actual names for our protagonists, merely labels). The sequence is really one of the movie's high points; heavy on mood, kind of gothic and score by an amazing cover of 'Sweet Dreams' by the Eurythmics. It ends with Baby being sent to the Lennox Home For the Mentally Insane(clever little shout-out there), and with the aid of a crooked orderly named Blue Jones (Oscar Isaac) the young girl is slated for a lobotomy. The specialist will arrive in five days. The film then follows Baby as she struggles to escape, coping with the situation by envisioning the asylum as a Prohibition-era nightclub, the well meaning Dr. Vera Gorski (Carla Gugino) teaching her to dance (i.e. work through her feelings) to survive, and the remainder of the protagonists: Sweet Pea (Abbie Cornish), her sister Rocket (Jena Malone), Amber (Jamie Chung), and Blondie (Vanessa Hudgens) assembling around Baby in a mutual bid for freedom, using the newcomers amazing dance abilities to distract their captors as they assemble the items they'll need to escape.

This leads into a fantasy within the fantasy, where as Baby Doll begins her dance numbers we flash into various and sundry fantasy scenarios; from an epic battle in a Shogunate-era castle against oni demons armed with rail guns to pseudo-WWI combat against steampunk reanimated German soldiers to a raid on a dragon's lair to an attack on a robot-filled bullet train. These sequences are the centerpiece of the film and the craft and care that went into them shines through, our five heroines looking absolutely effin' badass as they plough through their enemies, meeting their objectives, and looking damned cool in the process. And if this had been the premise of the movie, that rather than dreams this was an elite female unit of dimension-jumping kickers of ass and takers of names struggling to save worlds throughout the multiverse to prevent dimensional collapse, I would have pumped my fist and said this was the most amazing thing since the application of peanut butter to bread. But it's not and I can't.

I'm doing my level best not to get into spoiler territory here, because I do believe the movie is fundamentally worth watching. But the thing that makes my molars grind is that the badass, empowered women we see on the one sheets and in the trailers. . .they're not real. Or rather they're part of Baby Doll's dream-within-a-dream. Or the dream selves of the characters, who ultimately (apart from the figure of Baby herself) are shown to be anything but self-reliant or badass or strong. There is a moment when you watch these characters go completely to pieces. Is it understandable, given the circumstances? To an extent, yes. There's been some trauma, the pressure is on, etc. But isn't the journey of the film supposed to be the discovery by the girls of their own inner strength and resources? That they are far more powerful than they believed possible? If yes, then why does the film make victims of the girls, having them break down at one minor setback (to the point where a character makes a decision that is just. . .baffling), and then become hapless at the drop of a dime? Much like Chewbacca being a wookie from the planet Endor, this does not make sense.

Why is it that a film that's selling point is badass, confident looking women kicking the absolute crap out of bad guys really about being a helpless victim with some mealy-mouthed message about finding some inner strength within to deal with the pain without. . .and then having that pain without completely bulldoze you into the dirt? Yes, those who have seen the film will argue it ends on a hopeful note. Hopeful? Perhaps. Satisfactory to this member of the audience? Hell no. In my version the girls get away, after some very satsifying Death Proof-style vengeance on Blue's sleazy ass, laughing all the while as the asylum burns to the ground. That is the note the film should've ended on.

I don't know, maybe I'm overthinking this thing, but the film's notion of the victimized badass really made my hackles rise. Why can't a female hero simply be a confident, strong, fully realized character rather than either a victim, a headcase, or some combination of the two? Is there a spectrum that I'm not aware of?

Is Sucker Punch worth seeing? Again, yeah, I'd say so. If nothing else it got me thinking, and in an age of sequels/remake repeat as needed that's something we really, truly need in our escapist fare. Ultimately it is an impressive spectacle, with eye-candy galore and one of the most kickin' soundtracks I've heard in ages, but I can't help wishing for a little more steak to go with the sizzle.