Looking for the Fifth Element in Zack Snyder’s Sucker Punch

Cross-posted from The Corner.

Zack Snyder’s new film Sucker Punch is the worst movie of the year so far. It’s excruciatingly idiotic, and not at all the “hot-girl(s)-kicking-ass” feminist ‘empowerment’ narrative its deluded, simple-minded director thinks it is. It’s an assault against reason and common sense—indeed all the senses, not just hearing and vision; if it could smell of something, it would smell of bellybutton lint and dogshit. What’s more, it barely deserves to be called a ‘film’ at all—it’s really nothing more than a series of staged battles (which are actually just cinematic cut-scenes from computer games) kept afloat by a flimsy, undeveloped story.

The two-hour ‘film’ opens with a dialogue-free music video which establishes our female protagonist’s plight: in some undetermined period—between the late 1950s and middle 1960s—after her mother’s death, her father attempts to rape (or perhaps simply molest) her younger sister. Our as-yet-unnamed lead—who has perfect cheekbones, seductively plump lips, and her blonde hair done up in pigtails—grabs her father’s gun and aims at him, only to unintentionally fatally shoot her sister instead. (As with the majority of the rest of the film, large portions of this sequence are filmed in slow-motion for absolutely no reason whatsoever.) While an unforgivably vile cover of “Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This),” sung by the lead actress Emily Browning—the first of many such Evanesence-style musical atrocities (all of them covers, all unlistenable) that the ‘film’ commits in the name of God-only-knows-what—continues to pound away in the foreground, Dad takes the accidental murderer to Lennox House for the Mentally Insane (get it—Lennox, as in Annie?), where we learn that she’s 20 years old. Her age is a fact Snyder goes to great length to spell out visually and audibly, even turning down the volume on the song track so we can hear her father talking to himself as he fills out the paperwork to have her committed. Snyder’s message to the audience here is clear: “She might look like jailbait, but don’t worry, guys—she’s legal, so it’s OK to drool and/or mentally undress her.”

Five days later, just as she’s about to receive a lobotomy from Don Draper (Jon Hamm plays the ‘doctor’) via an ice-pick right between the eyes, she goes into a dream world wherein she plots an escape from the asylum. In this fantasy, the asylum is a mob-run 1940s burlesque house/gentlemen’s club where all the female patients are virginal erotic dancers who perform for the lecherous male patients, who are here transformed into equally lecherous clients. Her father is, absurdly, an Irish priest; the institute’s orderly is the mobster owner-operator of the club, replete with a sleazy sub-John-Waters moustache; and the matronly head nurse (Carla Gugino)—who in the ‘real’ world tries to recuperate the (literally) half-brained patients through role-playing exercises on the boards of the asylum’s creaky old stage—is a dance instructor. Our lead character also gets a name, albeit only a nom de théâtre: “Babydoll.” She’s joined by four other caged souls—like her, patients-cum-strippers—each with equally porny nicknames. Two—“Sweet Pea” (Abbie Cornish) and “Rocket” (Jena Malone)—are played by actresses; one—“Amber” (Jamie Chung)—by a reality TV “star,” and the last by an alumna of the prestigious Disney-movie school of acting, who toils under the misnomer “Blondie” (Vanessa Hudgens).

Babydoll is the lead dancer of a troupe that must rehearse a routine to entertain the mayor and his cronies when they arrive to spend up large. A reel-to-reel tape player clicks and whirrs into life, and she starts swaying in time with the music, her deliberately anime-like eyes betraying a disquieting mix of terror and youthful naïveté. As the beat kicks in, she is transported into the first of several CGI worlds in which she and her fellow prisoner-dancers become videogame characters who are engaged to fight bad guys (grotesque ginormous samurai; fire-breathing dragons; mouth-breathing reconstituted steampunk Nazi zombies, etc.) and complete quests staged against various historicised real and unreal (i.e., fantasy) backdrops. The first world is feudal Japan; here she meets a platitude-spouting wise old man (Scott Glenn, doing his best David Carradine impression), an overlord type who explains the rules of each episode, and a list of the five items she must collect: a map, a key, fire, a knife, and… well, he doesn’t reveal the fifth element apart from saying it will come only at “great personal sacrifice”—but if you’ve seen The Fifth Element, as Snyder maybe has, you know early on what it is.

The idea behind the dancing is of course that, in successfully completing each “quest,” the troupe has pleased the audience—danced well enough to (sexually) satisfy those watching. The majority of the ‘film’ takes place in the second level, the burlesque house, where Babydoll and her beleaguered companions are on a mission to find the four (or five) items mentioned by the wise old guy before an impending visit by the “high roller” (i.e. Don Draper, i.e. the lobotomy itself).

This is the most artless ‘film’ of the year to date, and despite its few visual accomplishments—barely any of which, by all accounts, were the product of the wrongly-lionized Snyder’s pitifully macho imagination—it’s certainly nothing on Inception, a film which somehow managed to scrape by on technical merit alone being, as it was, farcically heavy on exposition. I realise Sucker Punch is a geeky fantasy, but the absurd colour-grading in every single shot means that even the reality of the ‘film’—its uppermost level—doesn’t resemble anything that exists in the natural world. Like the cheekbones of all the girls, every surface here is airbrushed to buggery—and each of the CGI gameplay levels actually just looks like a computer game, and one, at that, which you can’t play. At least Avatar had some kind of challenge for the characters to overcome—here we just sit around watching them jump about, slay dragons and gun down undead Nazis. There is no progression between the various dances/levels even in videogame terms; there’s no boss at the end over whom Babydoll must triumph; there’s no real story arc to sink your teeth into, and there’s basically zero character development.

Calling Snyder a “visionary auteur” is almost as hilarious as trying to call this film a subversive satirical masterpiece—or as laugh-out-loud offensive as Snyder himself attempting to defend the film as a piece of empowering feminist rhetoric. (Snyder: “[The characters] might be dressed sexually, but I didn’t shoot the movie to exploit their sexuality…”) The lead character doesn’t even speak for the first 25 or so minutes, and if I remember correctly her first lines have her pleading for help, whimpering and powerless. If Zack Snyder has even heard of Max Ophüls much less actually seen Lola Montès, as Andrew O’Hehir would like to think, I’ll eat my hat. (Now, if Snyder had seen and referenced Elia Kazan’s 1956 Tennessee Williams adaptation Baby Doll I’d have been impressed.)

As it is, like all the other characters’ names, “Babydoll” references nothing aside from porno-nickname clichés. The final nail in the coffin feminism-wise, and one which completely destroys Synder’s pathetic theory, is that Abbie Cornish’s character, at the end of the film—hopefully you either won’t see the film or you’ve already seen it, but SPOILER ALERT!—must rely on Scott Glenn’s bus driver; she has no agency whatsoever. She must cede to his (male) authority to tell the army officers to let her off the hook and be let on board the bus.

A movie is never “only a movie” (unless it’s The Last House on the Left), but sometimes dogshit really is just dogshit.

Sucker Punch opened in theatres last week.