Wednesday, July 13, 2011

"Sucker Punch"- I Don't Care What You Think, I'm Gonna Like This Movie

After reading all the reviews for Zack Snyder's Sucker Punch I was sure it was going to be complete dreck. I thought I'd be subjected to non-stop scenes of violence perpetrated against women and/or an incomprehensible mess of a plot. What I found instead was a movie that I think was completely misunderstood by most of its audience.

Part of what compelled me to review "Sucker Punch" was all the hate directed at it. I can't say I've loved all of Zack Snyder's films myself but I do know that his movies have been well received in the past. I found myself wondering what entertainment faux pas was committed by Snyder to put the bullseye on his back-- and I think I figured it out. This isn't a movie for teenage boys. In fact, I'd argue that women are more likely to understand what Snyder was going for here.

Baby Doll (the heartbreakingly beautiful Emily Browning) is brought to a mental institution after an altercation with her sleazy stepfather results in the death of her younger sister. She learns that she has five days until a doctor (John Hamm) is brought in to give her a lobotomy. Like many people who are the victims of trauma or abuse Baby Doll retreats to an imaginary world to cope with her circumstances.

There are two fantasy worlds that figure into Baby Doll's imagination. The first layer is one in which she imagines that she has been brought into a brothel, disguised as a burlesque theater, that is run by Blue (Oscar Isaac). Each girl is taught to dance and told by their dance instructor (the 'real-life' psychiatrist)  Madam Gorski (Carla Gugino) that their best chance of survival is to prove useful by being able to dance. When prompted to dance Baby Doll finds herself transported to yet another world where she is told by the Wise Man (Scott Glenn) that she will need five objects to escape and sends her on a quest that exists in both the brothel and the hyper-reality of the second dream.

When Baby Doll awakens from her dream with the Wise Man she finds out that her dance is so compelling that no one can look away while she dances. So she enlists the help of the other girls in the asylum to track down the needed objects while Baby Doll keeps the men distracted. The other girls include Rocket (Jenna Malone), her sister Sweet Pea (Abbie Cornish), Blondie (Vanessa Hudgens) and Amber (Jamie Chung). Rocket has a special affinity with Baby Doll after she is saved by Baby during an attack by the cook at the asylum. Her sister, Sweet Pea, reluctantly agrees to the plan on the condition that the girls abandon their scheme if things get too dangerous.

After the set-up the film then moves into stylized action sequence portion of the story. As each girl sneaks away to steal the items for their escape, Baby Doll begins her dance and enters the fantasy world in which she and the rest of the girls go to battle. They fight mechanized German soldiers, slay dragons, fly in warships and attack flying machines straight out of a steampunk drawing. It's a slow moving, ethereal feast for the eyes.

Most reviews I've read are frequently punctuated with accusations of misogyny because Baby Doll envisions herself in a brothel for much of the film. The critics say what kind of movie about female empowerment has the women dress up in skimpy outfits and work as prostitutes? The mistake these reviews make is that they think this is supposed to be about female empowerment.

Just because I'm a woman doesn't mean I'm an expert on misogyny-- no more so than any other woman. But I know what it's like to live the female experience. I know that no matter how many on-screen fictions we see in which women plow through the enemy, we cannot so easily deal with external threats from men. We are physically at the mercy of a gender that is much stronger than us and most women worldwide are not as fortunate as us who live in the westernized world. We may have the benefit of "No Means No" campaigns, but how well do you think that would go over in Middle Eastern cultures that are strongly male oriented? And if we, as women, were so able to fight back as our entertainment would have us believe we could, would we need those kind of campaigns in the first place?

These are the things I think of when I watch "Sucker Punch." These women are not empowered; nor are they destined to become so. They are helpless and at the mercy of the men who rule their world. It's not that Baby Doll wants to be in a brothel, but it's a concept she can use. As a woman in a hopeless situation, the only ammunition she has is her sexuality. And despite all the cries of objectification! there is nothing explicit about "Sucker Punch." We aren't subjected to rape scenes because they are never brought to fulfillment. That's right; no one is actually raped. No one is prancing around nude either. In that context I can't help but wonder what the *real* cause of all the nonsense accusations of women-hating this movie has drawn because I never hear any of these people complain when women are trotted out as eye-candy in films like "XXX" in which a women is shown gyrating on a bed purely for the entertainment of the hero of the film as a sexual prop. Did I somehow miss the outcry? How many people complaining about this turn off the TV in disgust when James Bond has his latest casual fling with a woman with a semi-obscene name?

I think the sin that was committed by "Sucker Punch" is that it wasn't a revenge fantasy. It wasn't a movie that delivered the "proper" ending. It was about the way women survive when they're out of options. The sacrifices they make and the things they will endure are not the action oriented themes that I'd guess the audience for this film were expecting. I can understand the complaints that center around the lack of character development; that's fair. And if you thought it was slow-- I can accept that. But saying it's sexist is not something I can let stand without opposition. And when you get right down to it, the women fare much better than the men in terms of characterization. The women are empathetic and seeing their suffering is hard-- and it makes the men look even worse in comparison. And I think that's the real itch that can't be scratched in terms of why this film isn't universally liked. Rather than purely entertain, it makes some people uncomfortable.

I'm used to going against the grain when it comes to films in the sci-fi/fantasy realm. I didn't get the hoopla over "Avatar" and, though I liked "Inception," I don't go into fits of ecstasy at the mere mention of its name. So take my opinion with a grain of salt- but I liked "Sucker Punch." As well I might like a movie told from a woman's point-of-view. One that borrows more from something like "Moulin Rouge" than "300." I don't know if I can say this is a "woman's" film because you have to be a certain kind of woman to appreciate an action film with a feminine perspective--and I guess I'm that kind of girl.


Blodeuedd said...

I liked it too, I thought it was kickass and I got her need to escape. Oh and I was nearly crying at the end :/

SQT said...

Thank you! I knew I couldn't be the only one who appreciated this.

Scotty said...

Hiya SQT,

long time...

you can add me to the list of people who enjoyed it for many of the reasons you outline above.

How you been anyway?


Sally Sapphire said...

I thought it was a great movie - a lot of fun, visually breathtaking, and full of kick-ass heroines. It's a shame it didn't get the attention it deserved in theatres, but that's how cult classics are born. :)

Brooke Reviews said...

I also enjoyed the movie. It's nice to see others who did as well. I didn't understand all the hate for it!

Jessica Strider said...

I thought Sucker Punch was great, in a modern fairytale kind of way. did a great 2 part review of the film, mentioning that the burlesque fantasy world isn't Baby Doll's at all, but Sweet Pea's (consider the narrators words at the end of the film about whose story is being told).

Part 1:

Part 2:

SQT said...

Scotty-- Good to see you!

Sally-- I hope you're right about the cult classic part. I feel like this movie got thrashed for no good reason.

Brooke-- I didn't get it either. So unwarranted.

Jessica-- I started watching it again so I could compare the extended cut with the original and realized that the narration in the beginning is Sweet Pea. It's so easy to miss that the first time around. I'm going to watch it again.

Charles Gramlich said...

Hum, it sounds very different than I'd imagined it to be. I thought it was kind of a riff on Jack London's "The STar Rover." I will have to give it a look. I planned to do so anyway

Budd said...

I liked it too. I reviewed back in the day at scifi media. you make a good point about it not being a revenge fantasy. I guess people wanted a happy ending and sucker punch just wasn't really going there.

SQT said...

Budd-- I think that's the whole problem-- expectations. I guarantee you that the critics of this film would have no problem with scantily clad women if it was framed in a context they liked. That's what irks me; and why I spent so much time on the misogyny issue. Thanks for the link-- I'll be sure to check out your review.

The Man in Black said...

Since your review focused on a certain aspect, I'll let my comments do the same (I have both a text and video review up with different foci at MIBR). My comments were, "Is it feminism wrapped in an objectifying wrapper or is it objectification hiding behind surface feminism?" You pretty much said what you think about any accusations of feminism, so I'm going to mention what I think may have been objectifying about it (Note that objectification is generally considered acceptable in an action-based movie, but I'm still wont to making the observations.

To keep this comment short, I'm mostly going to quote my own script.

"Are we supposed to take Sweet Pea's mentions of “moaning”, “gyrating” and “titillation” as confirmations that Baby Doll is the perfect dancer? If so, talk about targeting the lowest possible denominator."

"...the main character- who would come to be known as Baby Doll's- world. Yeah, don't ask about the name. The two sisters- Rocket and Sweet Pea- even call each other by their stripper names."

"It's about time for me to explain why we're not at the mental asylum any more, but at a... slavery strip club?

Once Dr. Gorski tells us that we can make up our own world and control it, we move into the main character- who would come to be known as Baby Doll's- world. Yeah, don't ask about the name. The two sisters- Rocket and Sweet Pea- even call each other by their stripper names. The point is, the rest of the movie up until the climax is spent in this alternate reality, the one whose trailer is the scene with Sweet Pea. Despite my initial expectations, this is not the reality with the dragons and the samurai. This is apparently what Baby Doll feels is easier to live with. Or maybe it's just what Zach Snyder feels is easier to write. Easier to top Showgirls than it is Girl, Interrupted? You bet it is!"

"It's worth noting that the girls are dressed more skimpily as action heroes than they are as strippers. Is this a way to keep the blood pumping for the action scenes, or just a way to get straight guys to buy tickets? The juries out on this one"

"Actually, Baby Doll is kind of confused about whose story it is. Oh, it's... the only semi-main male character in the movie. Jack Crawford. It's his story. Really? Isn't it supposed to be the heroine's story, not the mentor's?

That brings up another question about this movie. We have a main cast of characterless females, led by a male who does their thinking for them, strippers trying to escape their predicament, yet dressed more skimpily in their fantasy than their reality. I could write a twenty page paper just analyzing the implications that might have been entirely by accident. Is it feminism wrapped in an objectifying wrapper or is it objectification hiding behind surface feminism?"

SQT said...

MIB-- I think you misunderstand the film. I really do. First I think it bears repeating that at the end it is said that this turns out to be Sweet Pea's story. So the burlesque elements could be from her imagination and we don't know enough about her story to know why she would use that as her coping mechanism, but she does. It could be that she is subjected to sexual assault on a regular basis and it's easier to put herself mentally into a brothel than it is to deal with reality. She can't entirely ignore her circumstances, she can only contextualize them enough to survive.

Beyond that-- the costumes? Really? It's a measure of how much skin is shown? Because I can think of a Wonder Woman costume that shows as much skin. And would anyone give a damn if this was put into anther context? I seriously doubt it. All this talk that these characters are being objectified because they choose the costumes themselves is ridiculous. As if it would be less offensive if the men chose the costumes?

And this isn't a feminist statement. This isn't about empowerment-- I'll say that again and again. It's about survival; which is totally different.

SQT said...

Also, I think many interpretations of this film are coming solely from a male point of view. What a guy can't understand is that if a woman is being physically dominated by a man, like in an abusive relationship, what weapons does she have at her disposal? The only thing she has that gives her power over the man is her sexuality-- and that's only if he chooses to let her have that control. By imagining themselves in a brothel these girls give themselves a chance at believing they are somewhat in control of that aspect of their lives. It kind of has to have a context that deals with sex because that's a big part of how they're being victimized.

In the extended cut there is a scene between Baby Doll and the doctor in which the lobotomy is likened to sexual penetration (call it ham-handed if you will). But the whole point of the conversation in Baby Doll's mind was that that she chose her own fate. She chose to let Sweet Pea go while she sacrificed herself. The only power she had, at that point, was to accept her fate and in doing so chose oblivion over her real life.

animewookie said...

OMG now I really want to see it!!! Love your review :D

SQT said...

@animewookie-- Thanks! I'm glad to see the response to this has been largely positive. Whenever you see a wave of criticism (or praise) that you don't understand you think you're the only one who thinks a certain way. It's nice to see I'm in good company.

Stephanie M. Lorée said...

I went against the grain on this film to. Quite frankly, I loved it. And I happen to consider myself a bit of a feminist.

Like you, I thought the movie was about the lengths women will go to when backed into a corner. I felt that it was empowering. There was less skin shown in Sucker Punch than in most SF/F movies, and the women weren't sexualized as much as they were part of a sexual culture. They were victims, doing what they had to do to survive.

And the special effects were awesome.

Some people are going to "get" the metaphor within a metaphor that this movie was. Others will not.

The special effects will still be awesome!

SQT said...

Stephanie-- I didn't spend much time on the visuals because I was hammering the other point, but I have to agree with you-- it was stunning.

The more I think about it, the more I like this movie. I was totally into it. When I wrote this I was so focused on refuting the accusations of sexism that I left out the other things I liked about it. If you haven't seen the extended cut, you should.

The Man in Black said...

The end of the movie pretty much said it wasn't Baby Doll or Sweet Pea's story- when the narrator did the "whose story is it?" line, it cut to the bus driver.

SQT said...

I don't believe it's the bus driver's story at all.

SQT said...

That was curt wasn't it? I guess I interpreted things differently...