Too much style becomes the substance that completely undermines a female empowerment story.
Meet Baby Doll (Emily Browning), a recently orphaned child who is institutionalized by her stepfather (Gerard Plunkett) in an effort to conceal a crime. Having lost everyone she’s ever loved and awaiting certain doom, Baby Doll first retreats into a fantasy world where she imagines herself in a brothel concealed in a burlesque theater under the thumb of Blue (Oscar Isaac) who “takes care of his property.” To entice the men they will be tasked to seduce, the brothel girls (including Abbie Cornish, Jena Malone, Vanessa Hudgens, and Jamie Chung) are instructed to dance under the guidance of their den mother (Carla Gugino), but when Baby Doll dances, she creates another reality in her mind of being an elite fighter garbed in fetish wear with the other girls by her side procuring items for an escape as instructed by a Wise Man (Scott Glenn.) If she succeeds, she is told, she’ll be free… and all that that implies.
From a screen play partially written by the director himself, Zack Snyder has created his own comic book on film, a deeply layered concept movie with almost as many realities as Inception and more combat cut scenes than a Playstation 3 video game title. The problems occur when the overstyling becomes a substance all its own and makes the plot almost irrelevant as a result. As impossible as it may seem, Snyder’s effort to be creative works against his narrative and distracts from his female empowerment storyline to become the very thing the story claims that it isn’t: a pure exploitation film.
The unspoken beginning sequence promises an incredible story, opening on a stage set which quickly becomes reality and suggesting that we are watching a parable unfold. When Emily Browning’s Baby Doll then retreats into her burlesque brothel fantasy, seeing all of the early twenty-something actresses stuffed into leotards and fishnets coupled with the fear in their eyes of being manhandled goes against the the promise of the trailers. It feels sickening and you want to feel sorry for the actresses more than the characters. Then taking all of it a step further into the deeper fantasy of being elite fighters destroying everything in their path, the so-called uniforms would even make Lara Croft blush. What may have been intended as taking control and reveling in fetish-wear as a badge of female sexuality and empowerment over their male captors is so over the top that the effect collapses in on itself to appear as nothing more than a male adolescent fantasy come to life.
The reality may be that a few beautiful young ladies got to play dress-up in front of the cameras; we all saw the posters for this film, so why would we have expected anything less? Thus we come to the second problem, the too-serious overtones of the entire production, and there might have been ways around this issue. Casting older actresses or portraying them as not so young might have been one work around, or perhaps a less serious story where the “girls just wanna have fun” rather than fearing rape and lobotomy. Empowerment comes from making your own choice; enslavement is when you have none. The story is effective enough to tell us these girls are in serious trouble, but seeing them buckled and strapped into form-fitting leather and thigh-high boots has the reverse effect of either making viewers ashamed to look at them (the guys) or roll their eyes in disgust (the gals.)
Is it possible that this WAS the point? The film IS called Sucker Punch, after all. It’s just as hard to believe, however, that this culminating effect was intended deliberately considering how incredible the action sequences are and the visual feast of war-torn landscapes, futuristic cities, samurai citadels, and dragons in dogfights. Rumor has it that there is a much longer cut, perhaps as much as an entire reel missing that may fill in the gaps and tell this tale better than the PG-13 version released into theaters (hints of that version may have been part of the closing credits show sequence.) But is there really anything more that could be told or shown that would lessen the exploitation effect and restore the film’s integrity as anything more? It doesn’t seem likely, even for someone that has genuinely enjoyed Snyder’s previous body of work (300 and Watchman.) Let’s hope that the Superman reboot, Snyder’s current project, is far less style and much more truth and justice.
(a two skull recommendation out of four)