(by Dustin Putman
Unlike director Zack Snyder's past films (2004's "Dawn of the Dead," 2007's "300," 2009's "Watchmen," and 2010's "Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga'Hoole"), femme-centric action-drama "Sucker Punch" is neither a remake nor an adaptation of a book or graphic novel. Looks can be deceiving, though, and his latest film, if not specifically based on existing source material, is almost a dead-ringer for a video game demo in the grim, grimy mold of "Resident Evil" and "Silent Hill." Why "almost?" Because "Sucker Punch" hasn't anywhere near the same level of foreboding and fumbles horribly at building apprehension or, really, any emotional response. Chaotic and loud but never the least bit exciting—it doesn't help that every dip into the fantastical is solely happening in the mind of its lead character—Snyder's meretricious, nonsensical, CGI-heavy fiasco is tedious enough to become a chore and so empty it's likely to weave a glaze over most audiences' eyes. Article continues below
Set in a lopsided vision of 1950s New England, the distraught 20-year-old Babydoll (Emily Browning) is institutionalized at the Lennox House for the Mentally Insane after her beloved mother dies and she accidentally kills her younger sister while trying to protect her from the clutches of their devious stepfather. It is here that she befriends her fellow inmates—brunette Blondie (Vanessa Hudgens), Asian Amber (Jamie Chung), and headstrong sisters Sweet Pea (Abbie Cornish) and Rocket (Jena Malone)—and is threatened with a lobotomy from the hospital's twisted doctors. When Babydoll receives a message from the mysterious Wise Man (Scott Glenn) that her path to freedom is in the collection of five objects—a map, fire, a knife, a key, and a yet-unknown last item—the girls agree to join forces. With reality an ever-shifting question mark in their lives, their missions are visualized in Babydoll's mind as full-on combat battles against dragons, robots and zombies in imaginary settings. Meanwhile, back at Lennox—or is it just another layer of embellished fantasy?—she creates a distraction by dancing away for the lascivious staff as her female comrades set out to snatch the items needed for their escape.
A kick-butt action movie set in a landscape not far removed from 1999's "Girl, Interrupted" sounds promising in general concept, but "Sucker Punch" is ruinously harmed by numb-skull plotting and a script by Zack Snyder and Steve Shibuya that would have a difficult time being less underwritten. Appearing to have been shot primarily in front of green screen, the film's look is at once garish and dreary, a world of metallic haziness that doesn't impress or inspire awe so much as it makes the viewer want to grab some Windex and part the gloomy clouds overhead. The story opens competently enough as it sets up Babydoll's tragic backstory, but even then, Snyder is so in love with his not-all-that aesthetics and so negligent of his characters' souls that he fails completely at bringing dramatic weight or sympathy to anyone onscreen. One watches the images pass by, but there's no emotional connection to the goings-on.
Things only get worse when Babydoll and the rest of the girls enter into symbolic fantasy lands that place them on distant planets, in the trenches amidst World War I carnage, and atop and inside a speeding train carrying a bomb about to detonate. This is all fine and well, but why should the viewer care or get involved at all when these set-pieces (1) are established as not really occurring and (2) depict the gals as indestructible, super-powered warriors? They float through the air, they fire machine guns, they brandish swords, they fly B-25 bombers and land comfortably on their feet when jumping from them, and they frequently are pounded into the pavement without so much as cracking a nail. Where, pray tell, is the threat and danger in any of this? With nothing at stake, these sequences are but boring nonsense, muddled pandemonium without tension, rising momentum or a point. Only in the final task of retrieving a key and being put in legitimate harm's way at the sub-reality asylum-cum-brothel is any interest at all riled up. By then, however, it was just a welcome respite away from the picture's bombastic, fallacious video game theatrics.
The characters are ciphers through and through, unable to grow beyond bodies running around in front of the camera. Babydoll is the lead heroine, yet remains inexcusably half-formed. We know of the immediate events that have led her to Lennox, and that's it. As for the other girls, they get names and are physically diverse enough to stand apart from one another. It is mentioned in passing that Rocket hated her parents and Sweet Pea tagged along with her. What did they do to bring them to their current hell? Who knows? As for Amber and Blondie, even less (read: nothing) is uncovered about their pasts. They have no individual thoughts or ideas or defining characteristics. Their only purpose is to look hot and seem tough. It has been reported that the five main actresses underwent rigorous training with Navy SEALs in preparation. After seeing the finished product, it's obvious that either their best material was left on the cutting room floor, Snyder and cinematographer Larry Fong dropped the ball on capturing the breadth of their physicality, or the training as a whole was just a staggering waste of time, energy and resources.
There is something very depressing about watching mostly talented actors squandered and drained of their natural charisma in stifling parts that turn them into console figures. Emily Browning (2009's "The Uninvited") gives the blonde pony-tailed Babydoll her best shot, but mostly puts on pouty faces to portray how silently pensive and determined she is. Jena Malone (2008's "The Ruins") and Abbie Cornish (2011's "Limitless") unleash the most outward rawness of the cast as Rocket and Sweet Pea, striving to bring dignity to two-dimensional vessels being tugged around by the screenplay. As Amber and Blondie, Jamie Chung (2010's "Grown Ups") and Vanessa Hudgens (2011's "Beastly") do, indeed, play characters named Amber and Blondie. That is literally all that can be said about them. As the heavies, Carla Gugino (2010's "Faster"), as Dr. Vera Gorski, and Oscar Isaac (2010's "Robin Hood"), as orderly-turned-pimp Blue, serve their thankless purposes. Not the best actors in history could possibly do anything more with these roles.
Lugubrious and unsatisfying, "Sucker Punch" is full of flash and fury and deadening apathy. If the battle scenes—mental mirages, all of them—are bereft of consequence and intrigue, as adrenaline-fueled as a patient succumbing to the final stages of anorexia nervosa, the hospital-set material is done in by inept writing, detached sentiment, and no one to get to know well enough to root for. The soundtrack, full of ethereal cover versions of such songs as The Pixies' "Where Is My Mind?," Jefferson Airplane's "White Rabbit" (allusions to "Alice in Wonderland" throughout the film are not accidental), and The Beatles' "Tomorrow Never Knows," are appropriately dreamlike and deserve a better movie. The ending—nay, the whole film—has nothing thematically deeper to comment on than how screwed up psychiatric methods from decades' past used to be. In consistently clunky fashion, the final voiceover is longwinded blather—a fitting description that could speak for the desperately misguided entirety of "Sucker Punch." The director who once proved all his naysayers wrong with 2004's horrific, harrowing, electric "Dawn of the Dead" remake has officially left the building. Where did that guy go?