I love movies. I’m an 80’s kid; I grew up with Labyrinth, Terminator and Rocky Horror; with Baron Münchhausen, Evil Dead and Brazil. I loved a wide variety of movies as a child and that eclectic taste has continued into adulthood.
I’m perfectly happy watching an empty action movie, where the plot takes a back seat to the action and where plot holes are ignored. Machete is one of my favourite movies of all time. I loved Prometheus, even acknowledging its many, many flaws. I can enjoy cheesy films in an unironic, just-having-fun kind of way and I can also enjoy those so-bad-it’s-good b-movies.
I’m also quite capable enjoying and getting into movies that intentionally confuse and mislead the audience. Brazil and Donnie Darko are both in my list of all-time favourite movies, and they both confused the hell out of me the first time I saw them.
Despite being a feminist, I have a high tolerance for gratuitous sexiness in my movies. I wasn’t turned off Planet Terror by the overt sexualisation of the protagonist; I was too busy cheering the fact that she has a gun for a leg. I mean, blimey, I’m queer myself anyway. Do the sexy right and I won’t just tolerate it, I’ll enjoy it! In any case, I’m particularly forgiving of overt sexualisation in blatant exploitative cheese-fests, since it’s an integral part of the style.
If there was a target audience for Sucker Punch, it’s me.
So the fact that I hate that movie is a pretty good sign that the writer/director missed the mark.
To start with, we have the problem of the plot. Girl Tries to Escape from Mental Asylum using Imagination. That’s it. I can’t describe the plot in any greater depth, partly because there isn’t any more to it and partly because, well, the way the movie chooses to show the plot makes no sense.
Here’s the concept. A girl is forced into an asylum by her… stepfather I think, to cover up that he murdered her sister out of anger at being cut out of an inheritance. An orderly at the institution is bribed not only to accept her as a patient but also to schedule a lobotomy for her so she’ll be silenced permanently. This girl, known only as Baby Doll, plans to escape the institution before the lobotomy and enlists the help of the other girls. Maybe. Sort of.
There are three layers to reality in this movie. There’s the real world, there’s Baby Doll’s fantasy version of the real world, and there’s a completely fabricated third world that has only the very vaguest relationship to either of the other worlds. In Baby Doll’s fantasy world, she’s not in an asylum but a brothel, where she dances. These dances are apparently so mesmerising that she uses them to distract various people so her friends can steal items they need to escape. Whenever Baby Doll dances, she retreats fully into her completely imaginary world, where she fights zombie nazis, dragons, orcs, giant samurai and so on.
And that’s the problem.
Layered worlds and ambiguous reality can work. It can work really, really well. Pan’s Labyrinth is a masterpiece of cinema, and a large part of the movie is the fact that the viewer doesn’t know, even at the very end, whether the fantasy world is real or whether it’s just the place the protagonist flees to in desperation to escape her unremittingly bleak reality. Brazil makes it apparent that the fantasy world is not real, but still meshes the fantasy world and reality together in a compelling and at times terrifying way. Labyrinth keeps the watcher in the fantasy world for almost the entire movie, and lets us forget about the real world in favour of just going along for the ride.
There needs to be balance. And there needs to either be solid connections between fantasy and reality, or none at all. Baby Doll dances in her fantasy as a means of distracting people. Her dances are supposed to be mesmerising in their sexiness. That’s what’s going on in her fantasy brothel world. Now, what might be the real-world equivalent? What might the mental patient be doing in the real world to allow her to distract an orderly, a chef, and a mayor long enough to allow her co-conspirators (who may or may not be real) to steal things? Can’t think of anything that actually makes sense? Neither can I! And neither could the writer, who carefully avoids showing us the real world at all after the first time we enter the fantasy world, until right at the very end.
The first fantasy world and the real world don’t connect in any way that makes sense. The big boss of the brothel is really only a lowly orderly in the real world, the mayor that Baby Doll dances for has no real world equivalent that I can see, and the big boss apparently murders two of the girls involved, at least in the fantasy, and I can’t for the life of me figure out a reasonable real-world equivalent. It isn’t being locked in solitary or medicated, since we see Baby Doll rescue one of the other girls from that exact situation.
The second fantasy world is, I’m sorry to say, dull. It’s sad and a real shame, because the visuals are stunning. But each small segment of the second fantasy world is completely different, and completely disconnected from, the last. There is no narrative between them and they have only the vaguest association with anything else (real world plot to get a map of the facility becomes fantasy plot to dance for the map, which turns into… fighting WWII steampunk zombie Nazis in a WWI setting in order to steal their map). I know next-to-nothing about two of the girls and literally nothing about another two, so I don’t care what happens to them in these epic fights. There are no stakes, since they massively outclass everything they face. It’s criminal to think that Steampunk Zombie Nazis could be boring, but they really are. By half way through the movie I was skipping through the action scenes a half-minute at a time. All those scenes did was drag me away from the story I wanted to care about, and for meaningless pop action they were at least twice as long as they needed to be.
If you want to connect your fantasy escape world to the “real world” in the movie, then that real world needs to be convincing, and it needs to reconnect regularly with the fantasy world to remind us where we are. But in this movie, the “real world” is less believable than the fantasy one.
- I’m supposed to believe that some random man who may-or-may-not be Baby Doll’s stepfather can just have a 20-year-old grown adult locked away in an institution without her being examined, talked to or even given a basic medical even once by someone who wasn’t the lone bribed orderly.
- I’m supposed to believe that this can happen in the middle of a criminal investigation of the murder of said adult woman’s kid sister when she and the man committing her were the only people present at the time of the murder.
- I’m supposed to believe that the committed girl doesn’t say anything at all to the real had of the institution, who she has regular therapy sessions with, about what’s really going on even though the step-father and the orderly discuss their plan to lobotomise her right in front of Baby Doll while she listens.
- I’m supposed to believe that a girl with zero prior mental health issues on her medical record can go as far as a non-consentual lobotomy within five days of her very first admission without the head of the hospital or the lobotomist or any of the other orderlies who work with the orderly involved asking any questions.
Honestly? The brothel is more believable. The steampunk zombie Nazis are more believable.
Not that any of it matters, of course. Baby Doll gets lobotomised. Given the way the scenes are cut, a possible reading of the film is that all the fantasy worlds, all the action and the escape attempt was just a dream – a fantasy that played out in the fraction of a second between when the hammer was pressed against her eye socket and when the lobotomy was performed. This reading would mean that the five girls were all aspects of her, and their deaths represented her giving up or something. If that’s the case, then the dancing doesn’t need a real world counterpart, neither does the mayor, and the relative positions of power that the orderly and the head of the asylum have no need to reflect reality. This theory could close up a lot of the plot holes.
Except the writer screwed that up, if that’s the case, since we’re clearly shown this was all real. One of the girls, Sweet Pea, does escape. Baby Doll sacrifices herself so Sweet Pea can get free, and we see Sweet Pea afterwards in the real world, boarding a bus and narrowly escaping getting caught by police. So we know it did all happen, in some form or other, and that Baby Doll really did spend five days working on an escape attempt only to get three girls killed and herself lobotomised.
In fact, the narration twists the film around to say that Sweet Pea, the girl with almost zero characterisation who we gave less than two shits about and who escaped, was the real protagonist and Baby Doll was just her guardian angel or some shit. Yeah, fuck you too, movie.
Oh, and the orderly apparently fell in love with or lusted after Baby Doll during those five days, since once she’s lobotomised he ties her to a chair, locks her in a room and sexually assaults her while crying that she’s not allowed to not-be-here because he wants her. That came out of nowhere, so yeah.
At the end of it all, there’s no payoff. Baby Doll doesn’t get free from the asylum. We don’t get to see sweet vengeance or any sort of payback against the man who did all this to her. We don’t see any sign that she’s retreated safe in her fantasy world like in Brazil, since we don’t go back in it again once she’s lobotomised. We don’t even get a really tragic end, like with Pan’s Labyrinth, that could pull on our heart strings because the movie hasn’t built Baby Doll up enough for us to care enough to cry over her fate. It sets itself up as a cheesy action flick then fails to deliver on one of the biggest promises of the genre - the hero triumphing and the bad guy getting his comeuppance.
Critiquing the film from a more feminist standpoint, now. I know I said I have a high tolerance for non-feminist and even anti-feminist stuff in cheesy b-movies and that’s true. I wouldn’t bother to critique Machete from a feminist perspective. But Sucker Punch has, for some bizarre reason, been called a feminist film.
Spoilers. Sucker Punch is about as feminist as Donald Trump hate-fucking a dead cat.
The main message of the film, if I can claw through the pile of shit to find one, is that Men Suck. The male characters are: Baby Doll’s step-father/sexual abuser/sister-murderer/briber-for-lobotomies, the orderly who accepts a bribe and claims he’s done this “thousands of times”, and who then proceeds to sexually assault a lobotomised Baby Doll with the implication being that he’s been lusting after her this whole time, which adds an extra layer of squick to the times she dances for him, two fat characters whose fat is used as shorthand for “disgusting rapey pervert” and the lobotomist. Oh, and an old man who may or may not be real who provides vague advice and exposition for Baby Doll. Misandry is not feminism. Say it with me. Misandry Is Not Feminism.
Other than that, we have a character we’re told is 20 years old but who is made out to be about four foot tall and given pigtails, a schoolgirl outfit and a purposefully naïve and childlike facial expression (and the name Baby Doll, for fuck’s sake), characterised as this shy, scared innocent abused being who then goes on the dance so laviciously that Every Single Man is hypnotised by her (no gay people in this world!), whose “epic fight scenes” contain more panty shots than your average hentai, and who is sexually assaulted once lobotomised. This character is about as close to the dictionary definition of “objectified” as you can get.
It’s a real shame. I wanted to like Suckerpunch. I really, really wanted to like it. But it failed on so many levels. I liked the music, although I mostly just felt disappointed that some really good songs were associated with the movie.