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A glorious display of sharpened steel covered inch by inch with engravings and intricate design work, Sucker Punch heroine Baby Doll’s sword is more than just an awesome weapon to behold — it’s a story in and of itself, with each of the blade’s markings representative of a major beat in the overarching tale of director Zack Snyder’s latest action flick.
Yes, we’ve seen this sword, and no, we can’t tell you what it reveals. But even without knowing the full scope of the weapon’s tale, the endless supply of eye candy that Snyder and his team have created for viewers is more than worth the price of admission all the same.
In 2009, Spinoff Online visited Vancouver alongside a small group of journalists for a firsthand account of Sucker Punch, a film that borrows elements from several genres and established works to create something wholly original. Moviegoers will come to know the story of Baby Doll (Emily Browning), a young girl whose mother and sister die in separate incidents, the latter of which is pinned on our heroine. When her abusive stepfather grows tired of caring for Baby Doll, she’s sent to an asylum where she’ll receive a brain-ending lobotomy in five days’ time.
Producer Deborah Snyder, who’s also Zack Snyder’s wife, spoke to the initial premise of Sucker Punch while leading the group through an extensive gallery of photos, concept art and story notes from the film. One of the wall’s most alluring pieces was a rough sketch of Baby Doll’s aforementioned sword, complete with notes detailing the specific meanings of the blade’s many markings. The obvious question — “What’s a sword doing inside of an insane asylum?” — was quickly answered as Deborah explained that Baby Doll’s trauma forces her to seek refuge in an alternate reality.
“In this reality, she believes that she’s in a Moulin Rouge-style brothel,” Snyder said. “In this Moulin Rouge-style brothel, her father becomes a priest of an orphanage who takes her there to be deflowered in five days by the High Roller. So she has five days [before the High Roller’s arrival], and she decides that she’s going to escape.”
The escape plan is formed when Baby Doll travels to yet another reality where a wise man (Scott Glenn) informs her that there are five talismans — a knife, fire, a key, a map and a fifth, secret object — and if she can fight her way through grueling battles filled with dragons, cybernetic samurai and other lethal obstacles, she can win these items and set herself free.
Of course, Baby Doll is not alone in her quest, as she’s aided by four other girls: Blondie (Vanessa Hudgens), Sweet Pea (Abbie Cornish), Rocket (Jena Malone) and Amber (Jamie Chung), each of them sporting different combat specialties — Rocket is a field medic, for example, while Amber is a fighter pilot who operates an elaborate mech-suit at one point — to round out their cooperative skills on the battlefield. Indeed, the film’s costume department (headed up by Michael Wilkinson) crafted the girls’ many costumes by drawing influence from their battle styles: as a field medic, Rocket’s uniform features a nurse’s cross, while her warrior-driven sister Sweet Pea boasts an appropriate amount of chain mail. It’s like this for all five of the girls, and to say that the costuming is breathtaking is a severe understatement.
As a female-driven action flick, Snyder’s latest is a far cry from the masculine action he put front and center in 300, Watchmen and, presumably, his forthcoming Superman reboot. But make no mistake; though the gender of his central heroes has changed from his last films, Snyder’s action sensibilities are stronger than ever on this one.
We were allowed to watch 20 minutes’ worth of filming as Hudgens and Malone’s characters shot and stabbed their way through a World War I bunker occupied by gas-filled German soldiers. That’s not meant in the flatulence sense, either; these soldiers are literally filled with gas, and as bullets rip through their flesh, smoke flows out in such a gruesome manner that one completely forgets about the lack of blood.
Although some have balked at the idea of High School Musical sweetheart Hudgens appearing in an action film, her on-set enthusiasm was absolutely infections; watching the young star systematically tear through a vast array of opponents was surreal, not just because it was Vanessa Hudgens doing the killing, but also because of the sheer level of expertise that showed in her movements. Hudgens, Malone and the rest of their co-stars were expertly trained for Sucker Punch, and it shows. You can read more about their exploits in our interviews with Hudgens and Chung and Malone and Cornish.
The leads of Sucker Punch aren’t just warriors, though they’ll fill that capacity during four 15-minute action set pieces throughout the film. They’re also dancers in the brothel reality, each getting a personalized dance sequence to put her beauty and despair on full display. During our visit, we watched Jena Malone’s dance sequence as Rocket. Just as the character’s medical skills are reflected in her outfit, Rocket’s vocation is symbolized as scantily clad nurses and a syringe-modeled pole occupy the central space of the dancing stage. We were told that all of the girls’ dances would embody their particular characteristics, with Sweet Pea’s sequence reflecting her Joan of Arc-modeled warrior aesthetic.
The exception to this is Baby Doll; she does not get a dance sequence, despite the fact that the Snyders described the character as “an amazing dancer.” Deborah explained: “We never see Baby Doll dance, because how could you? I mean, what could you show that would be the best, most amazing thing? It’s kind of impossible, and it would never live up to expectations.”
With the dances serving as the inmates’ fantastical escapes from the asylum into the brothel, the Snyders decided that the film’s action set pieces would be Baby Doll’s version of an escapist dance. The action’s relation to the dancing is more than thematic, as Deborah promised that each of the movie’s combat-driven sequences would be set to as-yet-determined music tracks — an idea that Snyder is undoubtedly familiar with, as the music choices in Watchmen remain one of the most memorable elements of that comic book adaptation.
Putting the female leads aside, Sucker Punch is a departure for Snyder in at least one more crucial way: It’s his first wholly original feature film. To date, Snyder’s entire body of work is rooted in pre-existing material — Dawn of the Dead, 300, Watchmen and his planned Superman adaptation — leaving Sucker Punch as the only effort he fully conceived from the ground up alongside writing partner Steve Shibuya.
“When Zack wanted to do this, he said, ‘Listen, I feel like I haven’t done a real action film. I’ve done a battle film, but I haven’t done a real action film, and I want to do something that has no boundaries,'” Deborah explained. “When he set out to write it, he said, ‘How do I do that?’ So he came up with this whole concept, where you get to go to all of these places. It still makes sense, and there’s the fun of it.”
If creating a boundary-less action film was his goal, Snyder has most certainly emerged victorious: The story structure of Sucker Punch inherently allows the director to weave in as many fantastic elements as he desires, but the emotional core remains firmly grounded in the story of a girl who is literally losing her mind. It’s a visceral ride that promises pulse-pounding thrills, unrestrained cheers and even a healthy heaping of tears.
In contrast to Baby Doll’s sword, the full tale of Sucker Punch remains unknown even to us. There are so many variables that go into making a movie successful, from critical reception to box office performance, that it’s simply impossible to predict how a film as massive in scale as Sucker Punch will fare in the end.
But just like that sword, the final tale isn’t necessarily the point: Whether it’s a success, a failure or something in between, Snyder’s Sucker Punch is without a doubt the most ambitious stop on his already provocative career path, and in the end, waiting to see if the train crashes or makes it safely to station is all part of the fun. But from what we saw, we’re betting on the latter outcome.
Sucker Punch arrives in theaters nationwide on March 25.