Each month, we at FilmHounds take a look at a director’s back catalogue and pick their lowest rated film on Rotten Tomatoes and ask ourselves – why? Why is it their least loved among critics? Regardless, we attempt to see the good in it.
This Month: Zack Snyder’s SUCKER PUNCH (2011)
This new year brings with it glorious gifts like the prospect of two new Zack Snyder films. His long awaited, and from the sounds of it, just plain long Justice League and his Netflix backed action-horror Army of the Dead, which sees him return to his roots. With Army, Snyder gives us his first film in ten years not based on previously published material – indeed, Army of the Dead and Sucker Punch remain thus far his only two original concept films out of his nine film filmography.
Sucker Punch got a kicking on it’s initial release, a fantasy action film that melds video game logic with heist movie conventions in a prison film setting. Emily Browning heads the film as Babydoll, a young woman who is unjustly put in an insane asylum lorded over by Blue (Oscar Isaac) and the stern watch of Dr Vera Gorski (Carla Gugino). When it becomes clear that she doesn’t have long before she is due a lobotomy, Babydoll teams up with sisters Sweet Pea (Abbie Cornish) and Rocket (Jena Malone) as well as Blondie (Vanessa Hudgens) and Amber (Jamie Chung) to escape the facility while escaping into a fantasy world where they operate in a burlesque club under. When Babydoll dances however she goes into a reverie version of reality again where the world is a fantasy.
Snyder’s films have never been in the realm of the realistic, even though his assertions that they are are taken as gospel by his loyal fans, but the reality is that his films operate on a comic book / video game logic even if not based on them. Sucker Punch starts in a highly stylised version of the fifties and then piles fantasy on fantasy. This actually enables him to do what he does best; create over-the-top sequences punctuated by faux intelligent morals. Despite the criticisms levelled at the film that it’s exploitative and just a teenage boy’s fantasy of what young women should be, it’s a deeper film.
For all it’s scantily clad women and exploitative roots, Snyder is subverting those conventions. Instead of just being an excuse to see young women like Jamie Chung dressed in S&M gear, it’s an exploration of the attitudes people hold towards women. The five women at the heart of the film are sexual objects, objectified by the older, often grotesque men that exert power. Isaac’s Blue, while charming and handsome, has a rotten heart, and is undesirable because of his unpredictable nature. The film’s comments go deeper; The Wise Man played by Scott Glenn is a benevolent figure, seeking to help the women without ever repressing them, while Gorski is an older woman at one point dismissively referred to as an “old whore” by Blue.
Snyder’s film is drenched in the style and attitudes of manga, anime and video games, genres that often put women in the driving seat. There is a through line between Major in Ghost in the Shell to Lara Croft in Tomb Raider to the women here fighting for survival. The genres that Snyder puts them in when the dance fantasies of Babydoll take over are ones often bereft of women. We see them in a steampunk version of World War One fighting steam-powered soldiers, we find them in a science fiction robot train disarming a bomb and in a Middle Earth style Orc-lead castle siege to stop a dragon.
A criticism thrown at Snyder is that he is a director of style but no substance and while in a film like Watchmen that could be a problem, this is a fantasy film and while it’s point is very shallow, the style helps to underline that. The entire film has a washed out, dream-like colour scheme and is laced with moments of slow motion to underline an action beat or a dance. Snyder also clearly has an eye for music and at times the film feels like a musical. It’s interesting that Snyder has never made a fully sledged musical because a rock opera in his hands would be a perfect marriage of director and material.
The film alludes to Alice in Wonderland and an action sequence set to White Rabbit, originally performed by Jefferson Airplane, is a stroke of genius and the lyrics explicitly refer to the Lewis Carroll story. In fact, all the music in the film is deliberate and shows Snyder’s affinity for placing music to images. The prologue set to Sweet Dreams is another example of how Snyder uses a cover of a song to play on the audience’s expectations and knowledge.
The critical mauling the film got clearly hit everyone involved hard, not least Snyder who for ten years has been working away in the DCEU and has not really spoken of the film since it came out. Famously, Jena Malone said that the critical kicking the film took hurt her deeply and made her consider quitting acting. It’s not hard to see why critics took against the film, it’s heavily stylised and Snyder is a very in-you-face director not known for subtlety.
Even so, the film’s fairytale quality as well as the heroic element of putting women in the driving seat of an action fantasy film isn’t something that should be dismissed out of hand. Snyder clearly has a point to make, even if it’s a fairly basic one. Moreover, the film ends with an extended musical number featuring Oscar Isaac and Carla Gugino singing Love is the Drug which is pretty much all the rationale someone should need to revisit the film and give it a second chance.