Freshman psychology and fanboy fodder form an unholy union in Zack Snyder’s Sucker Punch. The slow-motion auteur’s first film not based on a pre-existing property still feels mighty reminiscent of Alice in Wonderland, The Matrix, Moulin Rouge, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Cinderella, and The Lord of the Rings, all mashed together in one faux-profound, quasi-feminist blowout.
When Mom dies, Babydoll (Emily Browning) is all that stands between her little sister and their wicked stepfather. However, one errant ricochet takes the sibling’s life and gives the stepfather cause enough to throw Babydoll into the nearest insane asylum, and once subjected to the nefarious deeds of the orderlies (led by Oscar Isaac), she reimagines the entire nuthouse as a burlesque front for a bustling brothel.
Babydoll’s eager to escape, though, and can dance well enough to keep all men’s eyes on her, so with the help of Rocket (Jena Malone), Sweet Pea (Abbie Cornish), Amber (Jamie Chung), and Blondie (Vanessa Hudgens), she then re-reimagines her tasks at hand to take on the form of epic fantasy battles against giant gun-wielding samurai, dragons, robots, orcs, and steampunk zombie soldiers.
That’s right: goofy fantasy within grimy fantasy atop a grim reality. Snyder likes to think that his Russian nesting doll of a concept is enough to excuse its hollow center. It’s hard to believe that the female leads are being empowered when they’re forced to wear skimpy outfits for their sleazy superiors and clients, not when they are only ever portrayed as being in charge within dream sequences that carry all the weight of video-game cut scenes and have all the depth of righteous van art. Characters jump and twirl when it would simply be easier to duck from incoming gunfire and swinging swords, because it looks cooler that way, and the camera pulls off dizzying roundabout maneuvers that are intended to impress but instead reinforce the numbing digital slickness of it all.
And if the performances aren’t terribly compelling (especially in the cases of Ms. Chung and Ms. Hudgens), that’s OK, because it’s all imagined anyhow. There are anachronisms galore, as relics from World Wars I and II and Vietnam crop up alongside mechanized battle suits and levitating space trains, because why the hell not. With a little Freudian symbolism sprinkled throughout (the penetration of sex is associated with that of surgical procedures), what appears to be two hours of wet dreams is supposedly bolstered by underpinnings of rape, abuse, and death. It’s a very serious attempt to justify some very silly stuff.
Snyder and co-writer Steve Shibuya try to convince us that feminine charms are a weapon in and of themselves, while at the same day embracing the live-action anime ideal that nothing could be sexier than a schoolgirl with a sword. They even get Sweet Pea to spit out a wink-wink speech to that effect: “Don’t you get the point of this? It’s to turn people on. I get the sexy little schoolgirl. I even get the helpless mental patient, right? That can be hot. But what is this? Lobotomized vegetable? How about something a little more commercial, for God’s sakes?” The rest of the film is ultimately all of the above, and -- as already proven -- distinctly uncommercial. Sucker Punch starts out with a cover of “Sweet Dreams Are Made of This,” as crooned by Ms. Browning herself, but I’d argue that they’re really not.
The Blu-ray transfer flatters the lavish production design, though a healthy amount of included grain seems to soften the digital effects and help offset the fakery of it all. (I could be wrong, but the grain may very well intentionally lessen as Babydoll retreats from scummy halls to pristine landscapes.) An extended cut of the film has been included on its own separate Blu-ray disc, running 17 minutes longer than the theatrical cut. The changes are mostly accounted for by an Act I musical sequence, an Act II orc battle, and an Act III scene between Browning and Jon Hamm that single-handedly fleshes out his role from a fleeting cameo into a more substantial supporting turn. Aside from an extra gunshot here and an added line, it’s hard to see why this cut merited an R rating over a PG-13.
The extended cut disc includes a “Maximum Movie Mode,” during which Snyder discusses the shoot and the changes between the two versions, while still galleries, cast interviews, and synchronized storyboards pop up throughout. It’s a nice and thorough approach to the commentary track, but the featured content would ideally also be accessible through its own menu. The theatrical cut disc includes four animated shorts, running 11 minutes in total, that flesh out the mythos behind each fantasy realm; like the scenes in each realm, these are cool but ultimately pointless given the film’s narrative admission that these enemies are already complete inventions. There is also a brief plug for the Sucker Punch soundtrack.