If one were to look at Sucker Punch as a metaphor for something terrible -- namely, sexual assault, then you could make the case that the film actually works on a technical level. Not as a form of entertainment, or as something you'd ever want to watch, (don't be silly) but rather as a tool for folks to say "Yes, the visuals being used here symbolize this other thing they aren't showing." That this topic has already been handled with exponentially more grace shouldn't dissuade the noble metaphor noter -- because hey, this thing actually means this other thing. Indeed, and well played. Let's not dwell on the whole film coming off as an exercise in depravity, and does anyone fancy a few more slo-mo shots of women in short skirts with automatic weapons?
Sadly, we must dwell on the depravity, because it's placed front and center for the audience. Unfortunately, the world of Sucker Punch is so bleak that all but the heartiest and most inoculated of souls should avoid it in a big way. My personal rule of film enjoyment goes a little like this: you can be miserable or pointless, but you can't be both. Sucker Punch works hard to be both.
The film kicks off with a mother's death, a rape, a sibling's murder, and an innocent being framed. All this is chased down by our protagonist being unlawfully detained in a mental health facility. That's the first ten minutes of the film, so you can just imagine the delights that await you for the remaining two hours. Still, dark and depressing subject matter may be tolerated where some larger lesson or story arc is at work. This is not the case with Sucker Punch. If anything, there is even less is going on underneath the surface, because the surface is filled with the eyeball straining equivalent of 100lbs of Junior Mints intravenously inserted into your bloodstream. A fellow theatergoer described the effects as "punishing". Well said, hombre.
But what of Sucker Punch's world? The main character is "Baby Doll," a young woman who has been left in the hands of her very cruel stepfather. He's upset because Baby Doll's mom has recently died, and the will stipulates her children are to get everything (Jerk move taking care of your kids, mom!). The stepfather won't stand for this, and in the grand tradition of cruel despots everywhere he gets very sexual assaulty / murdery in short order.
As such, Baby Doll is whisked off to Lennox House, a home for the mentally ill girls of the Sucker Punch world. To say this is not a progressive facility would be understating the matter, in fact I'm not entirely certain how they'd have maintained their accreditation. This is place where, you guessed it, many of the orderlies prey on the abandoned girls, and there's a lobotomist who visits the site every few weeks to dispatch girl's frontal lobes. He's played by Jon Hamm, whose performance doesn't exactly make one want to enter the fast-paced lifestyle of lobotomy work.
Thankfully, Sucker Punch includes many forays into Baby Doll's fantasy world. Er, rather, I should say it includes many forays into Baby Doll's secondary fantasy world, because she employs an initial layer of fantasy as soon as she enters Lennox House. Got that? Don't worry if you don't, because the movie doesn't care either way. In Baby Doll's head they aren't in an insane asylum, they are all working in a brothel against their will, which is somehow a step up from being held against your will in a loony bin. From the brothel fantasy we enter an even deeper disassociation from reality, a world where dragons and robots hold sway. A fantasy within a fantasy? Yep. It's like Inception, but with crayons utilized instead of a script. But seriously folks, you know when you need a break from your fantasy world that your life has gone seriously off the rails. That's Baby Doll, her predicament, and her cross to bear.
But how will she escape? That's the question the audience asks about Baby Doll (And themselves) almost immediately, and it forms the narrative thrust. Critical items must be procured, schemes must be hatched, and Baby Doll's comrades in arms will help her navigate the shadowy and awful world of the brothel fantasy. A map, a fire, a knife, and a key will be needed to avoid having Baby Doll sold off to a high rollin' brothel patron (Again, this is within a fantasy, and is a metaphor). The team, comprised of Blondie, Sweet Pea, Rocket, and Amber, must team up with Baby Doll for mutual assured exodus. There are precious few moments of levity in Sucker Punch, but the ones that stand out are the raven-haired Vanessa Hudgens being called "Blondie" and the group's fantasy mentor, portrayed by Scott Glenn, who is constantly shouting trite aphorisms at the group such as "If you don't stand for something, you'll put up with anything!" and "Don't let your mouth write checks you can't cash with your ass!" These may be unintentional comedy points, but the audience I was with appreciated them all the same. Really, any break from lecherous men and complete powerlessness was a welcome respite.
Even though Sucker Punch contains powerful imagery, suitable for framing, of guns and girls, it is in fact massively invested in the subjugation of women. Baby Doll's physicality is what's coveted in the institution, and that's the very thing she's forced to use to "escape". The girls are objects of desire throughout the film, and even when they're killing they don't do anything resembling real critical thinking or planning. They dance, or slay, or smile in a sultry manner, but they aren't developed characters, they're victims, caricatures of what a confident woman might sound like to the tin ear of a Troglodyte.
So far as the message goes, there's a random voice-over moment in the beginning, which rears its ugly ahead again near the closing, which impossibly attempts to place an overarching philosophy on the whole sordid affair. To say this falls flat would be an insult to Salt Flats. The whole piece pivots from hopelessness to music video montages and back again, all without saying much while continually wasting motion and CGI dollars. It's like Seinfeld, where nothing is learned, and no one grows, only against the backdrop of utter despair, and minus the laughs.
Sucker Punch's central theme, the idea that we all live in our own heads, is not a particularly profound notion, but if mentioning this big idea saves you from actually seeing the film consider it my philosophical gift to you. It's the opposite of a sucker punch, an intelligent a subtle nod in your general direction.