Sucker Punch tells the very trippy tale of Baby Doll, a young girl who’s just had a shit-ton of wrenches thrown into the machine that is her life. The film starts with a sequence of events depicting Baby Dolls background in some (alternate?) version of the 1950s. We learn that her mother has just died, leaving her and her sister in the care of her stepfather, a man who is non-to-pleased with his former wife’s will that leaves him with nothing. Following the very sad, and silent, sequence of events in which the younger sister is killed, Baby Doll is blamed for her death and the doe-eyed girl is quickly shipped off to an insane asylum.
I see they went with a dark and dreary motif? How cliché.
While there, we learn that the head shrink thinks that Baby Doll can be cured and released soon, news that in no way pleases the young girls stepfather. To ensure he receives his late-wife’s estate, he bribes one of the hospital staff to schedule a lobotomy for his dear stepchild. Baby Doll has a grand total of only five days to figure out a way to recruit the help of some of the other girls at the asylum and escape the hell she’s found herself in before the good doctor arrives to do the deed. The film then jumps forward to the ill-fated day and, just before the doctor performs the ill-fated procedure, we once again flash back to the events leading up to this moment.
And to think I used to like you.
Sucker Punch is a hard film to pin down, genre-wise. At its core it’s probably best described as an action film, but the elements of sci-fi, fantasy and escapism don’t exactly make ‘action’ come across as a truly apt summary. To further complicate matters Sucker Punch is a single film using three distinct realities (one could argue more than three, but let’s keep it simple) to tell the same story. The first is the real world (at least I think it’s real), where Baby Doll’s life is shit and she’s about to be forced into La-La Land thanks to two greedy assholes.
The second is the imaginary world, where Baby Doll and the other girls at the asylum are unwilling workers in a brothel, forced to dance for clients, sold to the highest bidder and run by the shrink and corrupt staff working, who play the madam and owner/pimp, respectively.
Leave it to Snyder to try to make exploitation look artful.
The final reality is the dream-like world(s) that our protagonist and the other asylum girls’ transition into whenever they try to acquire one of the five items that they need to collect that will hopefully grant them freedom.
Try to take advantage of us now, asshole
Most of the films time is spent in the imaginary world of the brothel and can be labeled as a character drama, but then the straight-up action sequences kick in and the films focus shifts. For the sake of ease, I’m just gonna go with action, since escapist action character drama is a mouthful, and the dream-like fantasy/sci-fi sequences are really where the strength of the film lies. These are the points of the movie you can tell more time was put into and the ones that are sure to leave the biggest impression.
Each fantastical action sequence kicks in whenever the girls are trying to acquire one the items they’ll need to escape, showing that while the items might be mundane they are also vitally important. They’re not just partaking in a simple task, more like an epic quest. Not only does each quest look great, but they also cover so many popular fantasy and sci-fi favorites that fans of those genres are bound to find something they like. There’s giant, mystical samurai,-
-and zombie, steam punk, German WWI soldiers.
Proving that if you can’t decide on one good idea, combining them all is always a viable option.
In typical Snyder fashion most of the set pieces are pretty gloomy and bleak, but all look equally impressive and each sequence is well choreographed. My only complaint is that some of the physics used look a little ‘floaty’ for my tastes, a-la Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, but other than that I found them quite entertaining.
But while these fantasy scenes are certainly entertaining, they only encompass about one-third of the film. The bulk of the film is held in the imaginary world of the brothel or, to a lesser extent, the real world at the asylum. Despite the addition of some brighter color during these sequences, both realities are far more dark in tone when it comes to the treatment of the woman in the film. One would assume that someone’s imaginary reality would be less hard than the one they are currently inhabiting, but instead the girls create a world that is harsh, and cruel and dangerous. Whether it is because the girls are being sexually abused and feel that a brothel is a more accurate portrayal of their current life, the abuse suffered is so horrendous that a brothel would somehow be a more preferable setting to the asylum, or it’s just some annoying extra layer of visual allegory added by the director is left to the viewer to decide.
I couldn’t find a suitable picture for ‘visual allegory,’ so have a futuristic city instead.
Speaking of the girls, I was quite pleased with the cast. You get the feeling everyone is working hard, putting care into every scene to try to get you to care, too. The only problem is most of the girls sort of, eh, fade together too much. Baby Doll, the audience gets to know. We’ve got her story, we know her plight, we are thus slightly more invested. The other girls? Not so much. With the exception of one, they’re all pretty interchangeable. The cast could have started calling each other by different names and I doubt the vast majority of people would notice. Which is a shame, because I would have liked to be more emotionally invested in them, but was unable to as the film devotes absolutely zero time to doing so. Cutting a couple minutes from the action scenes to devote to short recruitment scenes of each girl would have gone a long way and made some later scenes more impact.
What was your name again? Sorry! Just kidding… I don’t really care.
Overall, I quite enjoyed Sucker Punch and have no trouble seeing myself watching it again, but I can tell that might not be the same reaction others get by watching the film. The dream-like fantasy sequences are pure visual splendor and do a good job of amping up the tension and danger felt in the imaginary brothel world, as well as portraying the protagonist’s mindset during such moments. Meanwhile, the bulk of the film in the other two realties is a straight-up character drama, something that might not mesh well with some viewers, especially if they don’t know what they’re getting into. The writing is competent and much of the characters likable, though most of the ones we’re meant to care for lack sufficient individuality. The differentiation between the real and imaginary worlds may get slightly confusing, but the movie does reward the viewer with a solid conclusion, it just might not be one that everyone will find agreeable.
Ultimately, I think Sucker Punch is a great popcorn film, something you can put on and enjoy while turning off your brain, but also something a viewer can watch and glean more insight and angles through multiple views. Either way, it’s something all fantasy and visual junkies should watch at least once, if for no other reason than to watch a handful of mech flying, young girls kick the asses of a bunch of zombie, steam punk, German WWI soldiers.
Sucker Punch is available on a variety of streaming platforms.
It is also available on DVD and Bluray.