19 July 2012 - 8:18 pm

Review: Sucker Punch

I’ve toyed with writing a review for this movie since the first time I saw it. A lot has been said about it before, and while I don’t read reviews as a rule, I’ve heard many conflicting things from friends, the internet, and random other media. Most of those things were negative. I can’t help but wonder what movie they were watching.

I bought Sucker Punch out of idle curiosity and because it was cheap. The movie is so unlike what I had heard that I feel like I’ve got a review worth writing. And, hopefully, reading.

There will be lots of spoilers. Be warned!

Let’s start with the criticism I had heard of it, if only because it made Sucker Punch such a pleasant surprise for me. In a nutshell, the objections I had heard said that it was gratuitous and cheap, and it was little more than an excuse to dress pretty girls up in sexy clothing and run around trying to be kick-ass.

My response to that is that those critics didn’t understand what the movie was about. Yes, there are pretty girls in it, and they do kick ass in many awesome ways, but it is far from gratuitous or cheap. I’ll come back to the sexy clothing later.

This movie is smart. The smallest thing can have meaning. You have to pay attention if you want to pick up all the clues, and some of them will only make sense in hindsight. This isn’t some gaudy, smack-em-up movie you can watch with your brain switched off; it’s a lot more than that.

The Story

The movie starts with a sequence reminiscent of the beginning of Pixar’s Up. No dialogue, just action telling us the protagonist’s backstory leading up to her incarceration in a mental institution, overlaid by a beautiful rendition of the Eurythmics’ Sweet Dreams. (The music is important in the movie, and beautifully done. I love soundtracks and this one is rapidly becoming one of my favourites.) It works wonderfully; I approve of sequences that work without dialogue, where skilful acting and cinematography can carry the story without words.

Then we are in the bleak world off the insane asylum. The setting is 1950s, when these establishments were still a viable place to dump troublesome young girls. Babydoll, our protagonist, has just accidentally killed her sister while trying to protect her from a lecherous step-father. He has bribed an orderly to get a rush lobotomy done on her, so that she can’t tell anyone what really happened.

Babydoll has one week before the doctor arrives at the asylum to perform the procedure. One week to escape. This story is about her fight for freedom, and though it doesn’t end as she had hoped, she is satisfied with how it all turns out. She achieves her own kind of freedom – one of spirit rather than body. She grows beyond herself and achieves a kind of redemption for the mistake that put her there.

She also pulls four other girls into her escape attempt and infects them with a desire for freedom. Babydoll is joined by the defensive Sweetpea, her little sister Rocket, the mis-named Blondie, and resourceful pilot Amber.

Alternate Realities

There are three different levels of reality in the movie, each more fantasized and abstract than the last. They are full of representation and meaning; they are metaphors and allegories. They build out the story in pieces, layer upon layer. In that way, it is like Inception, but without the plotholes (I may expand on that in a review of Inception one of these days, if I ever take the time to see it again).

The first level is reality: Babydoll’s grief, her mistake, and her incarceration in the asylum. The impending lobotomy. It is bleak and hard and painful.

The second layer is a brothel, where the girls dance for and ‘entertain’ the customers. It is colourful and glitzy in places, and in others the veil between it and the asylum is very thin.

In the brothel, the girls are objectified and abused. The escape plan is formulated and enacted at this level, rebelling against this world (as well as the asylum reality beneath it). It is a dressed-up prison from which the girls have to gain their freedom.

I find it interesting that Babydoll chooses a brothel as an abstract for the asylum. The sexual aspect of this world may not be entirely metaphorical (towards the end, the asylum orderlies say that they won’t ‘hurt these girls any more’, suggesting that they have been abusing them in some way, most likely sexually). What is clear is that the brothel world is better than reality, and that speaks volumes about just how awful the asylum was for these girls.

One of the main plot points is that the girls have to dance seductively for the clients. Surprisingly, we don’t ever see any of these dances; the closest we get is a glimpse of Sweetpea rehearsing, and her dance is graceful rather than provocative. In fact, she tells Babydoll off for writhing and moaning (in a dance that is not shown), because Sweetpea doesn’t like that kind of thing. A gratuitous movie would have shown us any or all of these things.

Babydoll’s dances are where the third level of reality/fantasy comes in. When she dances, she goes to a place in her head where nothing else can touch her. She steps into another world and experiences a story. I suspect that professional dancers will be familiar with this concept!

The movie takes us into those internal worlds with her and we never actually see her dance. That is one of the best choices the movie makes, in my opinion. We don’t need to see the dance (the reactions of other characters tell us all we need to know about it, and seeing them would have been gratuitous and unnecessary), and I love that the moviemakers made the choice not to show them. What we do see is much more important.

Each dance takes us into a different world, depending on what Babydoll needs to do most at the time. The first one is about summoning her courage and weapons to start to fight back against where she is; it’s the start of her journey to freedom. She has to learn how to fight and realise that she is capable of it. At the end, she is equipped with resolve: her most important weapon of all.

In the second world, we see all five girls working together for the first time. Here, they have to learn to act as a team and trust each other to retrieve an item they need in order to escape. The third and fourth dances enact further parts of the plan, each one different, each one changing the girls as they work towards their goal.

The Fantasies

Let me say up front that the four fantasy worlds are beautifully put together. They are creative and convincing, and worked seamlessly into the narrative so that they don’t jar at all, despite being wildly unlike the brothel that we have just stepped out of. The soundtrack shines through and around these scenes, smoothing off the edges and helping to stitch the movie together.

These worlds are, I think, the parts of the movie that have seen the most criticism. This is where the girls kick ass; this is where they take hold of their courage and their power; and this is where they are their most impressive. They set out on a mission and they take on anything in their way without hesitation (even when that ‘thing’ is a huge, fire-breathing dragon).

In their minds, they can have swords and guns, and they can hack down their enemies. All of their enemies are carefully and pointedly not humans: they are demons, or clockwork zombies, or orcs, or robots. Therefore, the girls never turn to actual killing, not even in their fantasies; this is about will and courage, not brutality. In reality, these girls are powerless and trapped, but this is a journey and standing up to enemies on the inside is the first step. Each piece builds towards a greater whole.

And do they dress sexy to do it? Mostly, yes, though not overly so. They’re not gratuitously running around in skimpy outfits – they are, for the most part, sensibly dressed and modestly covered up. Babydoll is the exception, with her fondness for the schoolgirl outfit, but the others are more practical.

Let’s not forget that this is a fantasy world, and, more importantly, this is the girls’ fantasy. What girl would dress herself up in ugly clothing and ratty hair in her own fantasy? Girls like to feel pretty and sexy, so it’s no surprise that they’re dressed up, with make up on and their hair done. They don’t look like whores; they look like girls who know how to look after themselves. (Even in the brothel, they’re dressed like dancers rather than hookers or strippers.)

The costumes reflect their personalities as well. It’s no accident that Sweetpea’s outfits get more armoured as the story progresses: she is the protective older sister, always defending Rocket when the younger girl gets herself in trouble. Babydoll’s schoolgirl outfit is an expression of her personality, too, rather than something imposed upon her.

The Heroines

The movie opens with a voice-over (before the silent sequence) that talks about angels. There is, at that point, no clue about who that voice-over might be from, or who the angels she’s talking about are.

The voice-over doesn’t return until the end of the movie, and it’s not until then that we find out who the movie was really about. Only one of the five girls completes the journey to freedom and makes it out of the asylum, and it’s not the one the viewer might expect.

I like that Babydoll doesn’t get to walk off into the sunset. She gets a brighter, sadder end to her story, but it’s one she’s content with. It’s the price she’s willing to pay. In a single week, she has not forgiven herself for killing her sister, but she has gained a kind of redemption by helping someone more worthy to become free. She’s a heroine, even though the story isn’t entirely about her.

When I picked up Sucker Punch, I wasn’t expecting an intelligent movie. I wasn’t even expecting a good movie. What I found was a smart, slick, beautiful tale with stunning visuals and an outstanding soundtrack. I thoroughly enjoyed watching (and re-watching) it. I recommend that you give it a try; maybe you’ll be surprised, too.

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