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Sucker Punch didn’t deserve its PG-13 rating. Really, in accordance with guidelines laid out by the Entertainment Software Ratings Board, it should have been slapped with a T for Teen. Make no mistake, this is a video game, if a non-interactive one. Really, director Zack Snyder said it best in his recent Spinoff Online interview: “It’s the game you want to play but it hasn’t been made.”
Sucker Punch does something that hasn’t really been done before in cinema. Snyder, who developed and wrote the story himself in addition to directing, took the structure and the core elements of spectacle from AAA video games and capably converted them into a blockbuster film. There are off moments and hiccups, but it should be clear to anyone who understands the language of games that the overall effort is a resounding success. Sucker Punch very much is the game you want to play but can’t.
Fortunately, you get to watch it all unfold. The story follows Babydoll (Emily Browning), a young woman who has been committed to an insane asylum by her wicked stepfather. The incarceration is only a first step, however. Babydoll is set to be lobotomized five days after her arrival, to prevent her from telling anyone the truth ugly truth about her dear, old stepdad. Knowing this, she bands together with four of her fellow inmates and hatches an escape plan.
The description hardly does justice to the story, which weaves in and out of a fantasy reality Babydoll constructs for herself in which the asylum is rendered as a sort of Prohibition era-themed brothel. In truth, we only see the actual asylum at the beginning and end of the film; the brothel scenes are interspersed with fantasy-within-a-fantasy action sequences, each one driven by one of the cover/remix/mashup-heavy soundtrack’s musical numbers.
The movie is visually spectacular, with all of the eye candy offset by a soundtrack of newly recorded compositions that are strong enough to put the full collection up alongside classics like The Crow and Judgment Night. The real appeal, however, is in the subtext, the lines of relativity that can be drawn between the film and the interactive form of entertainment that inspires it. The soundtrack’s content even informs that idea, its assortment of non-original works reflecting what amounts to Snyder’s cinematic “cover” of interactive entertainment.
Babydoll possesses a number of traits that are common to your typical video game protagonist. The story is influenced more by her actions than her words, and she in fact doesn’t actually speak until roughly 30 minutes into the movie. Being a newcomer to the Lennox House for the Mentally Insane, she provides a unique perspective to the way things work in the institution.
The two layers of fantasy then serve to deliver exposition and action, with the brothel offering more of the former and the quintet’s music-infused “quests” for items needed in their escape fueling the latter. At the front of each action sequence you’ve got Scott Glenn as the “Wise Man,” laying out the details of the latest mission. These moments pair up with a game’s pre-mission briefing, complete with trite one-liners that offer advice as well as a hint of what’s to come.
This is the make-it-or-break-it aspect of Sucker Punch. If you’re a person who “gets” video games, and you’re open to appreciating the subtext at work here, this is a movie that you will want to watch again and again to explore and better understand its mysteries. It’s not that the film’s overarching message is profound in any way; it isn’t. But that’s not really the point.
It’s the fact it’s there, this explicit summarizing conclusion, and the events that inform its delivery. All together, they paint a picture. This is a video game rendered in film, remember, in much the same way that Babydoll repaints her reality as a brothel.
The only unfortunate thing is that, by and large, film audiences are not versed in the language of video games. So a lot of what’s going on beneath the surface is going to be missed.
Judging Sucker Punch purely as a narrative work of cinema, it is pure, unadulterated spectacle. Snyder is virtually unparalleled in the business when it comes to the staging and execution of action; he has an inherent grasp of what looks “cool” and his talents are on full display here, bolstered, as I already mentioned, by a top-notch soundtrack.
The performances are solid, though the standout — really, the most well-developed character — is Oscar Isaac’s evil orderly/gangster Blue. He’s both terrifying and immediately likable, an obvious scumbag who still seems like he’d be fun to share a beer with. Like Christoph Waltz in Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds, he’s not an immediately threatening presence. There’s a joviality to his character, which makes the nasty asides and occasional outbursts all the more frightening.
The five female inmates — Browning, Jena Malone, Abbie Cornish, Vanessa Hudgens and Jamie Chung — do their best, and they all shine brightly in the film’s action sequences. The characters themselves are rather one-note, although more complexity would have diminished the film/video game interplay. Carla Gugino is an undeniable weak link; her performance is fine, but it feels like her character is missing a few, important establishing scenes.
It all comes back to the presentation. Sucker Punch is not a movie that everyone can love, but those who do probably will with their whole hearts. Snyder has created something truly special here, an action-packed, pop-fueled rock opera that serves up a rich audiovisual smorgasbord. It’s a video game, but it’s a movie too. You may not be able to play it, but for those who are receptive to the experience, it certainly plays you.
Sucker Punch opens today nationwide.
Don’t miss Spinoff Online’s earlier Sucker Punch coverage: