Despite two box office disappointments on the trot in "Watchmen" and "Legend of the Guardians," Warner Bros. are big fans of director Zack Snyder. They've given him the keys to their crown jewel by appointing him the director of the "Superman" reboot, and, like that film's producer Christopher Nolan, have funded an out-there passion project, in this case Snyder's first original script, "Sucker Punch." The gamble with Nolan payed off handsomely on "Inception," artistically and commercially, and a full trailer for Snyder's film hit Apple overnight -- could it possibly hope to match the success of that film?
The film follows protagonist Baby Doll (Emily Browning), a young woman in 1950s America who's committed to the sinister asylum Lennox House by her abusive father. With only a few days until she's lobotomized, she teams with a group of other young inmates (Jena Malone, Abbie Cornish, Jamie Chung, Vanessa Hudgens), escaping into a bizarre fantasy land to find the five items they need to plan a breakout.
It's become something of a cliche to say that a film with a heavy amount of CGI 'looks like a videogame,' but that doesn't mean that it's not a valid criticism on occasion. We're looking at the first generation of directors who not only grew up with games, but continue to play them -- looking at the Twitter feed of even someone like "Moon" helmer Duncan Jones, still seen as an arthouse helmer at this point, it's clear that he spends as much time with video games as with movies. From "Crank" to "Inception," the influence of games are creeping their way into the cinematic language, and that's not necessarily a bad thing, as "Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World" proved. Snyder's clearly picked up that influence here, from the foes that the girls fight (zombie soldiers, robots, dragons, even seemingly including an end-of-level boss), to the framing (witness the shot above, which could be the start of a third-person video game level) and the collect-em-up structure.
Despite what Drew McWeeny wrote overnight about Snyder's critics, that they believe he can't tell a story -- that's not our problem with the director. For all its many, many flaws, "Watchmen" at least proved that Snyder had the skills to condense a gigantic piece of narrative well. Our problem is that he doesn't have one of the key characteristics needed by great directors: good judgment. We don't mean subjective taste, either, we mean the should-be-obvious ability to comprehend that laying Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah" over a slow-mo sex scene will be disastrous. Or knowing where to draw the line with violence (and speed-ramping), whether in an R-rated superhero movie, or a PG animated bird picture. And we remain concerned about the problem here.
The "Sucker Punch" trailer looks cool. That can't be denied. There's a whole legion of money shots here, the kind of thing you'd gather your friends round the TV to show them in a game. But all the cool things in the world won't matter if the film's as hollow as "300" or "Watchmen," and while there's potential here for an emotionally richer story, again the question of taste comes in -- the crass suggestion of sexual abuse at the beginning of the trailer, the use of Snyder' trade-mark speed ramping and slo-mo, even, and seemingly especially, in the real world sections. And how come a 1950s teenage girl's mental escape destination of choice is remarkably similar to that of a chronically-masturbating 14-year-old boy in 2010? Maybe there's another twist in the tale, but the video game structure, and proliferation of zombie soldiers and robot ninjas, seems a little incongruous for the tale that Snyder's telling.
There's other things to be concerned about,particularly the stilted line-readings, and non-sequiturs spouted by Scott Glenn's Yoda-like character ("If you don't stand for something, you'll fall for anything?" Really?). There's enough intriguing about this project that we'll give Snyder the benefit of the doubt for the moment -- let's not forget, his debut, the "Dawn of the Dead" remake was quite strong. But our gut tells us that this could be the kind of self-indulgent passion project that amplifies a director's strengths, and faults, to the extreme: if you're a fan of Snyder, you've probably already booked tickets, but if you're not, well... We'll find out on March 25th next year.