I am not lacking in experience when it comes to sick movies. I’ve sat through some pretty nasty stuff; Hostel, the Saw films, Antichrist, Martyrs, a variety of extreme Asian torture movies – all the gore, trauma and pain has passed before my eyes either at the cinema or on the television. However, Sucker Punch has repulsed me beyond all of these bloody exploits. It’s evil. Really horrible, cynical, poisonous rubbish. And, on its cinema release, it carried a 12A rating.
With a ridiculously over-the-top visual style, Sucker Punch attempts to tell a tale that plays out like Inception for perverts and paedophiles. A young woman named Babydoll and her little sister are raped by their stepfather. While this is going on, an eerie remix of Eurythmics song Sweet Dreams moans along in the background. The lyrics ‘some of them want to be abused’ echo in the air, and when coupled with the strong sexual threat these scenes contain the whole thing feels extremely distasteful. When Babydoll retaliates she is sent to a mental institution. This is where things go from stylised reality to all-out preposterous fantasy.
The inmates in the grimy asylum all seem to be beautiful women in their 20s. However, they dress either like school girls or prostitutes, especially when Babydoll starts to imagine she is actually in a tacky burlesque club. Why? We don’t really know. It’s apparent she is trying to escape the fears on an impending lobotomy, but why she imagines something as sexualised and seedy is anyone’s guess. Maybe it says less about the characters and more about the male writers who created them.
In this strange dream-like world Babydoll creates, she is able to escape to other strange dream-like worlds when she dances, thereby creating different stages of imagination, dream and reality. In these worlds, which contain martial arts battles, Nazi war machines and growling monsters, the girls perform certain missions rather like the levels of a video game.
What’s particularly offensive is the pretence that the film is actually a pro-feminist empowerment movie where women show evil men who is boss. Because they are fighting against evil and blowing shit up, we are supposed to believe they are not being objectified. It doesn’t help that, while they are fighting, they are all dressed like dominatrix sex workers. The whole story revolves around women using their bodies and sexuality in order to get what they want. Does that sound very feminist to you?
The film repeatedly reminds us of the threat of rape these girls are exposed to from family members, the overweight cook in the asylum, and the sleazy institution manager. But instead of making this aspect clearly repulsive, the film deliberately eroticises it, with a roving camera that shows the girl’s accentuated bodies as they are forced to degrade themselves. There is a particularly nasty scene where some of the young women are executed, while their peers shriek in distress and fear (all scantily dressed). The man dealing out the violence then tries to rape one of the girls.
For a moment, I shall put aside the analysis of the movie’s morally bankrupt nature and offer my opinion on its technical achievements. It’s rubbish. The CGI is so bad I can only assume it was intended to look fake and computerised. If this is the case, then it is impossible to care about what is happening to the girls in their fantasy worlds, as none of it is real.
The performances are dreadful, although many of them don’t require much acting. Emily Browning as Babydoll barely moves her face (maybe she too underwent a lobotomy as part of her preparation for the role). The other girls are played by Abbie Cornish, a superb young actress who deserves better than this drivel, Vanessa Hudgens, in clothes that would never be tolerated in High School Musical, Jena Malone and Jamie Chung. They don’t achieve much other than managing to look sexy, terrified and bored all at the same time. I suspect that, to director Zack Snyder, this is a positive rather than a negative. It allows the creepy voyeurism that fuels the movie to flourish. There are also some bafflingly bad performances from Carla Gugino as a dancing instructor and Mad Men’s John Hamm as the doctor performing the lobotomies. They both look rather embarrassed. I don’t blame them.
Snyder has inflicted virulent nonsense on the public before (Watchmen, 300 ect) but this is his nastiest, and messiest, movie to date. The narrative changes its focus from one scene to the next and abandons all coherence and sense of order in the final showdown. The closing scene attempts to provide the audience with hopeful and positive messages. Sadly, any lasting well-meant sentiments are swiftly disposed of when the closing credits provide us with kinky shots of a girl rubbing the neck of a champagne bottle before it explodes spraying white foam across the screen. Make of this what you will.
I do not object to nasty, debased things being depicted onscreen. But I do object to Sucker Punch because it actively asks for viewer complicity and attempts to make the threat of sexual violence and the degrading humiliation of women exciting entertainment. It then has the audacity to pretend it is empowering on a feminist level. It’s like watching a gay rights activist preaching about tolerance to homosexuals whilst brutally murdering a lesbian. Sucker Punch is a puerile, vicious piece of work. It’s depressing the BBFC saw fit to award it a 12A, and troubling it was produced by a major Hollywood studio. Thankfully most audiences voted with their ticket purchases, prompting disappointing returns at the box office. Well, disappointing for Zack Snyder and Warner Brothers, but encouraging on a sociological level.
Sucker Punch (2011), directed by Zack Snyder, is available on Blu-ray disc and DVD from Warner Bros. Pictures, Certificate 12.