Saturday, June 11, 2011

sucker punch

dir. Zack Snyder
starring Emily Browning (Babydoll), Abbie Cornish (Sweet Pea), Jena Malone (Rocket), Vanessa Hudgens (Blondie), Jamie Chung (Amber), Carla Gugino (Dr. Gorski)

Finally, my review of Sucker Punch.

Oh, Sucker Punch. You should have been so much better than you were. But I've been around the block enough times on the back of this pony before. When I was an undergrad, Baise Moi was supposed to be this big female empowerment film. Turned out to just be unsimulated sex and unsophisticated violence masquerading as something thought-provoking, new porn for the MTV age. Sucker Punch aims a little higher.

Sucker Punch is a visually stunning movie. The color palette, costumes, settings and special effects are all top notch. Zach Snyder's eye didn't fail on that front. Unfortunately, that's not enough to really carry a movie, especially one that tries to go all Cerebro on you.

The film operates on three levels of reality, but without the utter mindfuck of confusion that was Christopher Nolan's Inception. Rather, the three levels are clearly delineated and easy to follow not only because of setting and plot but also because of obvious visual clues. Babydoll is committed to a psych hospital by her stepfather who wants to hush her up and steal her inheritance. He pays one of the orderlies, Blue, to lobotomize her to make sure that happens.

Babydoll then creates an alternate reality in which Blue is a gangster brothel owner, the therapist (played Slavic and sultry by Carla Gugino) becomes a strip dance instructor, and Babydoll and the other female patients are the sex workers in this sleazy club. The impending lobotomy is re-cast as Babydoll's virginity to be sold to a man called the High Roller.

Babydoll then retreats into another level of fantasy, a world populated by giant samurai statues, WWI steampunk zombies, orcs & dragons, androids on hyper-trains to cities on faraway planets, and the like. In this fantasy-wihtin-a-fantasy, a Wise Man (Scott Glenn) gives her a fetch quest to retrieve 5 items to make her escape from the brothel qua hospital before the bad thing happens. Babydoll then gathers a party of 4 other girls, Rocket, Sweet Pea, Blondie, and Amber, to collect the items and escape.

If this plot sounds very much like a video game, it kind of is. That's one of the main criticisms leveled against Sucker Punch by critics. In itself, the video game plot and action sequences don't bother me so much. It's not like Uwe Boll or the Rock are involved here. The problem is the lack of something more substantial to pull it all together into something you actually care about.

While we're on the topic of critical reception, I didn't really find the film to be misogynistic. Sure, it fails at being a female empowerment fairy tale but I don't think the message here is that objectification of women somehow makes them stronger. Yes, there are lots of young, attractive girls wearing hardly anything as they wade into the midst of dangerous battles and yes, most of the time selling sex like this simply reinforces prevailing social norms that women only matter for their looks. Yes, the film is an adolescent boy's fantasy, akin to Lara Croft, Bayonetta, the Dead or Alive series, and a lot of anime / manga. I agree that the girls are fetishized in the extreme, and threat of sexual violence and rape that pervades the film is disturbing. But where I disagree with the critics is that this, in and of itself, makes Sucker Punch a bad movie.

The flaunting of sexuality has become rampant, not just in entertainment media but in the real, every day world. Women and girls are wearing skimpier and skimpier clothes every season. Women are now on a more equal footing to pursue sex as an end in itself, for pleasure, without (slut) shaming. For good or ill, this is the direction American society is moving. Sucker Punch is very much a contemporary movie in that regards.

One of the problems with the (male) critics slamming Sucker Punch for its "fetishizing" of women is that it recreates in a new form the madonna-whore divide. Unattractive, overweight, and older women are free to explore their sexuality on the big and little screen. This is empowerment. But if the one doing the exploring happens to be young and fit, it's no longer empowerment, it's exploitation. Yes, there's a line to be drawn there but I think most of the critical world draws it with too broad of brush strokes. Being attractive, somewhat counter-intuitively, disqualifies you from actively exploring sexuality. In other words, the pretty girls are getting punished for being pretty.

Ok, back to the review.

Babydoll lays out a plan to get the 4 objects with the help of her companions, the 5th, an undisclosed and unknown item that will require "a great sacrifice," she leaves to be discovered when the time comes during the escape. The girls move from the brothel fantasy into the battle fantasy worlds when Babydoll dances. Each world, representing a mission to collect one of the items, has its own theme.

The first world is a snowy Japanese temple. Babydoll slips into this world alone when she is first forced to dance for Madam Gorski. It is here that the Wise Man gives her a katana, pistol, and a list of the items she needs to escape. Babydoll then battles 3 giant stone samurai. The design for the temple and the stone guardians is superb and the fight scene is well choreographed. It's an over the top summer blockbuster featuring a blonde girl in a burusera uniform.

The next world involves a mission through the trenches of WWI to retrieve a map from German steampunk zombies. Yes, I said steampunk zombies. The costume designs for said zombies as well as the battlefield and zeppelin that functions as the map courier's escape all provide ample eye candy, nevermind the skimpily dressed females. Amber climbs into a steampunk mecha at the beginning of the mission with way too digital a UI for the otherwise steampunk trappings of this setting. Meanwhile, in the brothel world, Rocket has gone off to fetch the map from Blue's office.

The next world is a mashup of fantasy and technology. Babydoll, Sweet Pea, and Rocket drop into the middle of a castle being besieged by orcs to retrieve a pair of gems from a dragon to make fire. Blondie and Amber stay behind in the B52 bomber that delivered them to the battlefield. Slaying a baby dragon to retrieve the jewels angers their mother, who climbs out of the fiery bowels of the castle seeking revenge. There's an exciting chase sequence with the dragon pursuing the plane before the beast is ultimately slain by Babydoll. In the brothel world, Amber has stolen a lighter from her cigar-smoking client who has come to see Babydoll dance.

It's after this sequence that I got pretty annoyed with the film since it became crystal clear that there was no connection between what was happening in the brothel (and I assume the hospital world) and the fantasy fight sequences. No matter who was on the fetch quest to get the item in the real / hospital world, the three principals in the fantasy sequences were always Babydoll (understandable since it's her story - sort of), Sweet Pea, and Rocket. The three blondes. The two dark haired (and "ethnic") girls are almost exclusively relegated to the sidelines and support roles only. The one exception is Blondie's participation in the trench raid in the earlier WWI sequence.

Wouldn't it have made more sense for the girl fetching the item to always be relegated to a support role in the fantasy battles since she's away from Babydoll and engaged in another activity rather than watching her dance? Or to always accompany Babydoll in these second-order fantasy sequences because of her active role in retrieving the item? But neither logical reason to always include or exclude the fetching girl is followed. Instead, the rule is if she's blonde she's going on the adventure and if she's brunette she's not. The lack of a principled reason to explain who's on the strike team gives those sequences an unnecessarily fetish-driven tone.

The last fantasy sequence arises out of the girls trying to steal a knife from the brothel's cook. The girls lock the kitchen door and use an old radio to play music for Babydoll to dance to. Blondie is not present in the kitchen and Amber serves as a lookout.

The blondes are dropped off on a hyper-train barreling down on a city located on a faraway planet. They are to disarm and retrieve the bomb that is being sent to blow up the city. After fighting android sentries in a sequence that reminded me a lot of the very first trailer for FFXIII, they struggle to get the disarmed bomb lifted off the train by their flying transport. Not all of the bolts fixing it to the floor were undone. Unfortunately, that's not the only task the blondes have failed to complete. One of the androids, bisected but not inoperable, manages to restart the bomb and locks the girls out of its countdown. Rocket sacrifices herself to help Sweet Pea, her sister, get off the train. This is paralleled in the brothel world where the cook stabs Rocket instead of Sweet Pea. But the girls do manage to take the knife, the third item on their list.

Getting wind of the plot when he overhears Blondie talking to Gorski, Blue locks Sweet Pea in a closet and shoots Amber and Blondie in the head. He then attempts to rape Babydoll[1] but she manages to stab him with the stolen knife (item 3), gets his key (item 4) and uses it to unlock the door holding Sweet Pea. They use the lighter (item 2) to set a fire in the closet, setting off the fire alarms which unlocks the main door. They then escape through the brothel / hospital using the map (item 1) to get to the outside.

Once outside, Babydoll and Sweet Pea find a group of men gathered near the front gate, making a stealthy escape impossible. Sucker Punch then goes all M. Night Shyamalan. Item 5, the great sacrifice, is Babydoll herself. What a twist! Yes, that's the "sucker punch" of the movie. Babydoll isn't the main character at all. This is actually Sweet Pea's escape story.

Sweet Pea, as I mentioned before, is Rocket's older sister. Unlike the other girls in the brothel / hospital, she didn't have a problem "fitting in" in the outside world. She ran away from home to follow Rocket and look after her. Babydoll, whose own little sister died at the beginning of the film when Babydoll tried to rescue her from their creeper stepfather raping her, realizes she has nothing to escape to but Sweet Pea can go home and lead a normal life. And so Babydoll sacrifices herself, distracting the men so Sweet Pea can slip away and board a bus, driven by the Wise Man, home.

Tying up the loose ends, the High Roller is actually the doctor who will perform Babydoll's lobotomy. He performs the procedure but is disturbed by the look in Babydoll's eyes. He asks Dr. Gorski why she signed off on the procedure, which the therapist denies doing. Blue has forged her signature. The police are called and Blue is arrested and nobody but Sweet Pea lives happily ever after.[2]

Pretty depressing stuff for a movie that's just supposed to be BAY-splosions with fetishized girls in skimpy clothing kicking ass. Snyder has advanced as one interpretation of his film that it is a critique of the way geek culture fetishizes women. Unfortunately, Sucker Punch lacks the requisite subversive elements to qualify as a critique. It doesn't subtly or unabashedly twist its fetishized forms to comment on them. It doesn't hyperbolize those figures to the point of absurdity to undermine them. Instead, it puts them into play without challenging the larger edifice of sexism and sexualization in geek culture and culture at large.

Sadism and sexual violence against women? Check. But most of it may not have even happened except in the mind of Babydoll. What does it mean when the principal character is just "making it up"? And the tables aren't turned on Blue or the cook because of their sexual violence. The cops arrest Blue not because he is brutalizing Babydoll (and possibly brutalized the other girls). He is arrested for forging a signature, in effect manipulating the mechanisms of (masculine) medicine for his own selfish gain. And the stepfather gets away free and clear. He attempted to rape both his stepdaughters, youngest is dead, and the only witness to his crimes and rightful inheritor of the future has been lobotomized by his machinations. The violence against women remains hidden and unpunished.

Female sacrifice? Check. I guess at least it wasn't to save her beloved boyfriend, brother, or father. It's to save other girls: sisters and friends. But for all the gunplay, sword fights, martial arts and acrobatics, the girls can't be heroes through their active deeds alone like men. What makes them significant is their ability to sacrifice. This is a standard trope not only in the West but also in Japanese fiction.[3] Rejecting this trope and giving Babydoll the power to free herself by her own hands or at least dying actively trying to escape would have been one way for Sucker Punch to move from merely a geek fetish film to something more akin to a feminist empowerment fairy tale.

Hot girls, particular blondes, in skimpy clothes. Check, check, and check. Why would you wear those outfits into a warzone? Trinity (the Matrix) kicked ass and wore a mean looking jacket and pants while doing it. This problem is also sometimes referred to as the chainmail bikini. Men can armor up from head to toe in plate but a woman fulfilling the same role wears little more than a bikini top and a thong? This is an area of much contention in the universe of video games, an element of the geek culture Snyder is referring to.

I never thought I'd say this, but I wanted to see more Vanessa Hudgens. Jamie Chung, too.[4] Unlike Babydoll, Sweet Pea, and Rocket, their characters (Blondie and Amber) don't even get the outlines of a backstory as to how or why they've ended up in the hospital. It makes Babydoll's assessment that Sweet Pea is the only one who could integrate back into society hollow and without substance. Really, the only reason they seem to be there is to (1) fill in the mission support roles (mech pilot, airplane pilot) and (2) provide eye candy for those who don't like blondes or have a thing for Asians. That "thing for Asians" and these one dimensional characters are yet more examples of how Snyder panders and plays to the fetishes of geek culture rather than critiquing them.

All of this probably sounds like I disliked Sucker Punch, which I didn't. It was a very flawed movie, definitely not the female empowerment film you're looking for. But it did the pretty pictures well. I <3<3<3 the design of minigun wielding giant samurai, the steampunk zombies, and the orcs. Each setting had a strong and unique visual signature and style. And the use of color throughout the film was fantastic, between the muted b&w & gray backgrounds to the more colorful costumes of the girls. These are things Snyder also did really well in 300 and Watchmen.

Sucker Punch fell down because it couldn't be more than a big budget, reality-hopping Roger Corman sexploitation flick, the kind you would see at a grindhouse double feature.[5] But I don't think this kind of action-er starring pretty girls is ultimately doomed to failure. It's possible to have short skirts, BAY-splosions, and still say something thoughtful and subversive about gender roles. Angelina Jolie's character in Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow illustrates a good way how to do it in an otherwise bland movie.[6]

It's not fair to say I disliked Sucker Punch. I liked it ok. But it had a lot of potential to be something more clever, more transgressive, more interesting. I had high expectations for Zach Snyder's pet project. Instead we got pretty girls battling monsters and machines with a fantasy-within-a-fantasy-within-reality narrative structure firmly entrenched within the confines of Western tropes of gender and reflecting unreflectively the sexual fantasies of geek culture.

No, I didn't dislike Sucker Punch. It just disappointed me.

[1] Which would then deprive her of the value for which she is being sold to the High Roller, but these are the escapist fantasies of a girl on the precipice of being lobotomized so illogic can be forgiven.
[2] Why aren't the police called because 3 of the girls are dead? Ok, maybe not Rocket because that may fall into the category of expected mayhem inside a psych ward. But what about Blondie and Amber, who were shot in the head? How do they die in the real / hospital world? Or are they even dead at all? I didn't see them roaming the halls of the hospital after Babydoll's lobotomy. So many questions but they were quite literally disposable characters.
[3] I've briefly dealt with this before in my primer on anime female types, which itself referenced on article on wussy JRPG girls.
[4] See my review of the Hangover 2 for another film I criticize for underutilizing Jamie Chung and playing up to stereotypes about women, specifically Asian women.
[5] Confession: I haven't seen the Tarantino / Rodriguez double feature Grindhouse. But Tarantino is one who can write strong female characters: Mia Wallace, Jackie Brown, the ladies from Kill Bill, even going back to Mallory in Natural Born Killers and Kate Fuller in From Dusk Till Dawn.
[6] Ling Bai's character, on the other hand, drove me crazy in the movie, though perhaps not so much for the character itself as for her penchant to always take roles playing the exotic erotic of one stripe or another. Always. That said, I did fancy her costume and fighting style. She's a comely 44 year old though it's hard to show that here on the blog because her very large nipples seem to have taken lessons from Houdini on how to escape the confines of her clothes.

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