Babes, blades and brothels

April 4, 2011

Avalon Manly
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“Sucker Punch” is a slideshow of all the aspects of cinema that writer/director Zack Snyder apparently adore – both those used previously by Snyder himself in movies like “300” and “Watchmen” and those external sources that clearly influence his work. A spinning coat button in the foreground that might as well be the comedian’s badge in “Watchmen;” a high-tech-meets-low-tech steampunk train heist lifted almost intact from an episode of “Firefly;” a ravaging, silvery waif worthy of Tim Burton as “300’s” Leonidas.

Then there are the giant, menacing samurai that bleed light, the clockwork WWI trench soldiers, the Asimov robots, the mech warriors, the blatantly “Lord of the Rings” orcs, the Nazis with skin cancer, the dead baby dragon and the pissed-off mommy dragon, all to a soundtrack of mellow Eurythmics covers and dramatic percussion.

So, yes, “Sucker Punch” is a strange movie, a framework story that would make Chaucer roll in his grave, so lacking in segues that almost nothing makes sense right away – but it’s also a good movie, a commentary on mind over matter, and a story about self-sacrifice, redemption and the ultimate eradication of great evil.

A wisp of a protagonist known only as “Baby Doll” (played by Emily Browning), whose wildly tragic backstory is told in the opening credits, is installed in a mental institution by her abusive stepfather, who bribes the staff to lobotomize her within the week, so she will never be able to incriminate him.

The Lennox Institute seems to embody all the horrible things Hollywood suggests time and again that asylums are: havens to the perverse and predatory, unforgiving haunted houses of manipulation and abuse. In order to cope with her time there, Baby Doll delves into a fantasy that might grant her the key to her escape.

Now, you might think that a psychologically shattered young girl, given the opportunity to create her own empowering (albeit imaginary) habitat, would project a setting of safety and peace. Not Baby Doll. Her coping mechanism is to imagine the institution as a brothel, overseen by an orderly-turned-pimp, a kindly psychologist-turned-cowed madam and a lecherous cook.

Baby Doll teams up with a cohort of impractically-clad young women (I’ve never seen 20-year-olds look quite so prepubescent) to plan her flight from Lennox. She uses her newfound, trance-inducing dancing abilities, represented throughout the movie as aesthetically hypnotic fight sequences, to distract her captors while her comrades obtain the tools they need to escape before Baby Doll’s frontal lobe gets scrambled by the doc.

While Snyder’s use of fantasy battles as symbolic of Baby Doll’s struggles to overcome her own demons is almost painfully unsubtle (the film goes so far at one point as to use a dragon’s disemboweled anatomy to represent the seedy underbelly of the politics of power), the movie is not lessened for such interpretive simplicity. Rather, it gives the viewer a break and allows them to be overcome by the immersive visual effects; the alternating slow- and fast-motion blend with a veritable buffet of explosions and kill counts to create a world you can get lost in until the credits are through scrolling.

Following in the tradition of films like “Memento,” “Donnie Darko,” and “Inception,” “Sucker Punch” is not easy to follow. It is, however, delightfully familiar in many respects. If “Sucker Punch” had cinematic parents, they would be “Kill Bill” and “Charlie’s Angels.” Baby Doll’s guide – or perhaps her guardian angel – is played by Scott Glenn, who, whether Snyder meant him to be or not, is almost a clone of David Carradine’s Bill, irreverent quipping and affinity for samurai swords intact.

“Sucker Punch” is a polarizing film that audiences will either adore or resent. If you can suspend your expectations of what a sci-fi genre movie should be and appreciate the 110-minute runtime for what it is – a trippy, visually stunning video game-movie hybrid with a moderately well-told underlying story – then you’ll enjoy it. If you demand a little more from your movies than gentle self-awareness and unexploitative tales about good over evil, then you should probably just watch “Citizen Kane” again.