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Review: 'Sucker Punch' An Overstuffed, Deadening & Boring Journey Into A Zack Snyder Wet Dream

by Drew Taylor
March 24, 2011 7:39 AM
42 Comments
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For months now, through a barrage of teasing promotional materials, one question has remained about Zack Snyder's glitzy passion project "Sucker Punch" – what, exactly, is it? Is it a period drama about a young girl in a mental institution? Is it a dream world thriller a la "Inception"? Or is it some kind of experimental action film, in which characters take on dragons in one sequence and silvery robots in the next? Well, it turns out that the final product is all of these, and none of these things. It sure is noisy, though (especially if you watched it in IMAX like we did).

A Warner Bros. logo partially obscured on a red velvet curtain precedes the film. It's a striking image, but it's one wholly borrowed from Baz Luhrmann's wondrous "Moulin Rouge!" and, mere seconds later, we hear how heavily indebted (oddly enough) the film is to Luhrmann's masterpiece. Strings swell, but they're playing something familiar -- it's a re-jiggered version of "Sweet Dreams (Are Made of These)" by the Eurythmics sung by Emily Browning. As we push in, the curtain parts and the "stage of the movie" is revealed. This is all pretty cool, besides its obvious derivativeness, but it's a good metaphor for the movie itself – all cool bullshit, no real meaning.


The film opens in earnest in a prolonged, wordless sequence with Baby Doll (Browning) losing her mother and then fearing for her life from an abusive stepfather who wants the inheritance left behind exclusively in the hands of his stepdaughters. Of course, he is so cartoonishly drawn that our friend leaned over and said after watching the stepfather swill booze and menacingly adjust his necktie, "He's a bad guy, right?" In the struggle against the stepfather, who may or may not be trying to rape her younger sister (you can feel the MPAA cuts here) Baby Doll tries to shoot him but misses, killing her sibling instead. The stepfather brings her to the Lennox mental institution, which seems to be populated exclusively with pretty young girls. And if you had any doubt that this was a Zack Snyder movie, everything you just read is done in slo-mo. Anyway, he tips the slimy warden Blue Jones (Oscar Isaac) $2,000 to have his stepdaughter lobotomized at the end of the week – so the clock is ticking!

Except that it isn't. Because the film's loose structure, which is really a coat hanger on which Snyder drapes all sorts of dizzy visual fantasias, openly allows for flights of fancy. And pretty soon, we're thrust into Baby Doll's dream world, which is again set in the 1950s but instead is a kind of bordello/crime den. Her doctor (Carla Gugino wearing an outrageous "Polish" accent) is recast as the head of the brothel, and her sisters-in-arms are strippers, hence the names Amber (Jamie Chung), Sweet Pea (Abbie Cornish), Blondie (Vanessa Hudgens) and Rocket (Jena Malone). From there we zoom into a secondary alternate realm where the girls take on the identity of an elite fighting squad. If this sounds confusing, it is, but worse than that, it dilutes any kind of emotional connection or understanding of the characters or what they're going through since so much of the time they're engaged in meaningless theatrics on other planes of existence.

It's these extended fantasy sequences which make up most of the movie. The girls are tasked with compiling several items (among them: a key, a map, a knife and "fire" – what are they, Neanderthals?), and each time they slip into the alternate universe, they enter a place seemingly grabbed from the Big Bag of Science Fiction and Fantasy Clichés, or at the very least Questionable Videogame Levels. There's a WWI-themed trench warfare sequence, with the girls facing off against mechanized German soldiers; a runaway bullet train teaming with villainous robots and cresting towards a prog-rock-album-cover futuristic city; a medieval castle overrun with (no joke) orcs and dragons and a snowy samurai set that looks not unlike a "Mortal Kombat" setting we're pretty sure we've played or a rejected set design for "Kill Bill." If you aren't rolling your eyes by now, then you aren't paying attention.

There's a lot wrong with these sequences -- Snyder's handling of the geography of these battles seems to be completely lost here -- but most egregious is how utterly boring these worlds are. The character designs, the settings, the color schemes -- on nearly every fundamental level, these alternate realities offer nothing new and are completely uninspired. It turns out that Snyder's wildest fantasies can be found in a your nearest comic book store, so yes, the biggest problem in a film about the power of imagination is how plainly unimaginative it actually is. Not to mention that each sequence is bookended with one of these Luhrmannesque musical interpolations, most of which are pretty boring and beside-the-point. Additionally, the girls are aided by a mysterious magi figure in the form of Scott Glenn, who gives gruff orders and imparts hoary platitudes like "Don't write a check with your mouth your ass can't catch" (gee, thanks). What's even more befuddling about the Glenn character is that there's no "real world" counterpart, so he exists as a whole-cloth invention of the girls' imagination. Would they really be looking for advice and guidance from a man, when men have pretty much ruined their lives?

The answer, of course, is no, and besides wearing some fabulous costumes really well, Glenn's role is perfunctory at best, acting like the narrator of a role-playing game. But his appearance does illuminate a key issue in "Sucker Punch," which is the complete lack of awareness (or possibly just dogged reluctance) when it comes to its own troubling gender politics. The girls are each dressed up like a Suicide Girls pinup, the idealized woman as imagined by a teenage boy with knee socks and bodices and strappy half-shirts that maximize cleavage. But they're fighting in a world born out of their imaginations so the question begs to be asked -- who, exactly, are they supposed to be titillating? Additionally, they are tasked with retrieving or interacting with profoundly phallic symbols -- the cigar, the
missile, the sword -- but there's never any acknowledgment of this, even on a winking, sub-textual level. The way the girls enter the netherworld, by the way, is by Baby Doll's mind-blowingly seductive dancing which hypnotizes men and that could have been a cool idea, since she's literally subverting the male gaze into a portal for progression, but this concept would have only registered if he ever showed us the actual dance. Instead, she just kind of sways a little, closes her eyes and bam! we're smack dab in special effects-land. But really, the talk of this film being some kind of feminist call-to-arms at any length is laughable, mostly because characters of both genders are drawn so one-dimensionally that extracting any kind of politics is a fool's errand. The film basically casts a bunch of nubile, young, half-dressed women into a world populated by ugly, ogreish, violent men and then calls itself empowering. Hardly.

And for the actresses themselves -- who all seem to have had a ball on set according to recent press interviews -- they are done no favors by Snyder. Armed with lugubrious dialogue and forced to sell key emotional scenes while calling each other Rocket and Sweet Pea, they wind up simply being window dressing and ultimately avatars for Snyder himself, as they shoot, stab, fly and fight their way through a wet dream of his creation. Ironically, the only character who comes off with any real zing is Blue. Oscar Isaacs has a lot of fun chewing through the scenery and even manages to get an intentional laugh here and there. He seems to be the only one in the cast who realized that his role was already simplistic and over-the-top and milked it for all its worth.

"Sucker Punch" is such a redundant, never-ending assault on the senses, that by the time the movie reaches its climax, there is literally no impact – it's relatively low-key and so divorced from everything else we've seen, that it can only be met with a shrug. The various planes of existence aren't reconciled in any way that even resembles a satisfying conclusion, the layers don't bleed through, there's no kind of cumulative battle that the girls have to go through even though the film is structured essentially like a video game. Snyder, in his last poor decision in a long litany of them, goes for a finale that is supposed to be emotionally satisfying and deep, except that we're so damn confused by what was going on in the first place, that it doesn't make any sense. As an audience, you're still trying to figure out what happened in the lumberingly slow two hours that preceded the conclusion, to worry about feeling anything for the characters (especially since at the end they're at least a couple degrees divorced from their "real world" counterparts). For all the baroque visual spectacle on display in "Sucker Punch," none of it registered with any sense of wide-eyed, gee-whiz astonishment. Most of the time, you'll be gaping at the screen in pure disbelief that anyone, anywhere gave Snyder this much money to deliver such an incoherent mess both narratively and visually. The movie's slogan is: "You Will Be Unprepared" and they aren't fucking kidding. Seemingly constructed out of what middle-aged movie executives might think the most stereotypical Comic Con attendee might want to see in a movie, you can practically feel "Sucker Punch" groan and strain under the weight of its pixels. Few movies have tried this hard, only to accomplish so very little. [F]

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42 Comments

  • gk | August 23, 2011 6:32 AMReply

    absolutely hated the movie. cant disagree with this review... bad script.... i also thought the fight sequences were too unreal.... nobody gets hurt after a 500 foot fall... dats fantasy, but action really doesn't seem action enough unless some one is hurt???.. I still actually dont get wat was intended here...

  • Van Stratten | March 25, 2011 7:57 AMReply

    Why should we believe a word you say Arkadin?

  • Christopher Bell | March 25, 2011 6:53 AMReply

    I think that's bullshit. Why can't a movie have really good action and a story not thought up by a nerdy teenager in Algebra class?

  • Mr. Arkadin | March 25, 2011 6:25 AMReply

    these girls should be over at kink.com, i'm sure it would be a less painful career start than in a snyder film...

  • Edward Davis | March 25, 2011 5:08 AMReply

    @me. God, such an idiotic excuse to give this -- or any movie -- a pass. you should be ashamed for thinking that aloud let alone posting it on the Internet.

  • me | March 25, 2011 4:33 AMReply

    ughh this movie is about action of course its not gonna have a stroy The real audience watching this movie will have seen that coming while they were outside buying tickets to get in.

  • Kathleen Walsh | March 25, 2011 1:31 AMReply

    @me: You are a dumbass. Action and story are not mutually exclusive. Go watch Die Hard, Lethal Weapon, Speed, The Bourne franchise, Iron Man, Raiders, Terminator, even fucking Con Air. Action needs story to thrive. Meaningless crashy crashy CGI 'splosions are not exciting if there is no coherent story behind it.

  • Tiffany | March 25, 2011 1:05 AMReply

    Thank for the review. I wasnt interested in this movie anyways. I love how that reviewer called it Sucker Puck. lol

    Men will love it the woman are dressed sexy and of course it will be visually pleasing to the eye.

  • Jessica | March 25, 2011 1:02 AMReply

    I think people will either hate it or love it. I think it will do good at the box office but a lot of crap does well at the box office. I dont want to bash on other films that made a lot of money and that also made me want to jump off the nearest cliff but I couldnt find one so I gave up on that idea. However I have been hearing that Sucker Puck is like Alice in Wonderland but with swords and guns and dragons. I am not sure if I will go see it. have you seen the prices of the tickets? Damn Hollyweird Just DAMN

    Zach Snyder makes films that are visually fascinating to watch. I really like what he does and I think he is an extremely talented director and their is no doubt about it.

  • Kimber Myers | March 24, 2011 12:53 PMReply

    Very nice review here, Drew. You bring incredible depth (high five for the male gaze reference!) to a film that doesn't make the same effort.

    Thanks for saving me $12.

  • Drew Taylor | March 24, 2011 12:33 PMReply

    Leah pointed out to me (in a conversation we had earlier today), that the dream sequences were really the girls' way of "escaping" while getting raped. Which makes everything infinitely more icky.

  • LA2000 | March 24, 2011 11:57 AMReply

    All of this noise I keep reading about the alleged "hypocrisy" of having an interview followed by a negative review is complete nonsense. Stop watching Fox News. It has poisoned your very understanding of the difference between journalism (an objective interview) and editorial opinion (a review).

    Outlets like Playlist did Snyder a solid by allowing him, without journalistic hatchet or prejudice, to make his case for his movie. It may or may not get butts into theaters, but if they don't show, it certainly won't be because Playlist tried to humiliate or blindside Snyder during his interview. Because they didn't. The interviewer was objective and courteous, as one would expect. That isn't hypocrisy, it's professionalism. If you complainers weren't so busy indoctrinating yourselves in right wing propaganda and opinion disguised as news, you would recognize why that distinction is important.

    Playlist and similar publications don't owe Snyder anything other than to treat him fairly during that interview and to be honest in the review.

    If you want mindless gushing, you can find all you can swallow over at "Ain't it Cool".

  • The Playlist | March 24, 2011 11:47 AMReply

    @Baffled
    Someone knows what time it is.

  • Leah Zak | March 24, 2011 11:17 AMReply

    @Ken - whoops saw your comment after I made mine...definitely see what you're saying, but that's kind of the fun of having a long list of contributors -- opinions vary and for the non-Snyder fans, they have this review to nod their heads at, for those interested in hearing more about the process of making the film, they have the press coverage where we ask them about it. win-win (win).

  • Baffled | March 24, 2011 11:10 AMReply

    The only reason the interviews / negative review combo is surprising is that such things do influence coverage of lesser publications (see the techcrunch / moviefone debacle). I for one am glad that the playlist calls them as it sees them.

  • Leah Zak | March 24, 2011 10:45 AMReply

    a little late on the uptake here but I'm blaming Pacific Standard Time.

    As Edward had already mentioned, I did these interviews (that's right, more to come!) last week, before I had read Drew's review -- nevertheless, we're still entitled to an opinion whether we talked to the filmmakers or not right? -- and having seen the film before going into the interviews, I can't say I would give it an A+ either. It's not awkward to dislike the movie you are interviewing people about -- an interview is an opportunity for the filmmakers to defend their vision.

    While I agree with Drew on many positions highlighted above, I do think the cast put in good work, and unless I'm a terrible read of character (very possible!) I can't imagine that Zach Snyder intended to offend us ladies with "Sucker Punch," in fact I think that he was trying to tell us a tale of girl power and survival against very grim odds -- unfortunately that failed epically when one considers the (possibly unintentional) subtext. See above for how.

    but as bobmorton asks in the comments below, what will the teenage girls think? GOOD QUESTION. I ask myself the same thing, because -- as I said -- on the surface this is a kick ass girl flick about surviving in a tough world, very emo, very young person, not to mention that "Sucker Punch" is an action film led by girls.. a Hollywood rarity, much like The Leading Lady Over 50. BUT as Drew points out, the girl power pretty much falls apart once you get past the awesome fight scenes (which **SPOILER ALERT** are a mental fill for the girls while they, in one level of fantasy sexy dance, and in reality are being raped and/or molested).

  • Ken | March 24, 2011 9:57 AMReply

    I was just amused that there was a nice interview with Emily Browning and then literally two posts later was an F review of the film she's in.

    That's all. I don't care if the film sucks or not, I'm just passing the time before I see some news on filmmakers I like.

  • Edward Davis | March 24, 2011 9:53 AMReply

    Biggest Wishful Thinking By Playlist Commenters That Is Never Going To Happen: Zack Snyder having Superman taken away from him.

    Do not confuse apples and oranges. Sucker Punch is a risk, WB know this, they knew it years ago. Superman is not.

  • rotch | March 24, 2011 9:51 AMReply

    The amount of comments on this review makes me think this Hot-Topic-engineered pseudo-movie is going to make good money this weekend, despite all my dreams about it bombing and therefore Superman taken from Snyder's hands because of the poor box office.

  • Trent. | March 24, 2011 9:22 AMReply

    I have nothing against Snyder but boy do I have the sense he's gonna fuck up the Superman movie. HIS all style and zero story capability is not a recipe Superman needs.

  • Drew Taylor | March 24, 2011 9:18 AMReply

    What up party people?

    Just thought I'd chime in on my own behalf.

    One – I didn't want this movie to be bad so I could write a bitchy review. I never want any movie I watch to be bad. But, after those initial, tantalizing trailers, the writing seemed to be more and more on the wall. After I saw the "Art of" book (which I also reviewed on this here site), my hopes began to sink, since the pre-production artwork, typically a time when creativity and imagination is let loose, was so tepid and uninspired. But still, I held out hope. None of Snyder's movies are truly "great" but they are all, in their own ways, "interesting." So I was hoping for something to, at the very least chew on.

    Two – I'm not sure why a damning review of fucking "Sucker Punch" has unleashed every commenter to harp on the site. Do you guys really have a lot invested in this movie? Or do you think it just looks kind of cool and since we were so harsh on it, you want to put us in our place? It's pretty weird. Especially when it's coming from trained medical professionals like Dr. Fart.

    Three – What's interesting is that no one is speaking to the gender issues with the film. You're mad because we thought it wasn't cool enough, apparently, not that it was labeled (by us) a misogynistic pile of crap masquerading as "empowering" feminist text. It makes "Sucker Punch" even more dangerous and loathsome, since it's hiding behind these ideas, since it's so blatantly anti-woman. The way the female actors talk are like indoctrinated cult members. "I'd do anything for Snyder…"

    Four – My EIC is right – I loves me some over-the-top visual splendor. But this just doesn't cut it. No amount of hazy cinematography or computer generated monster is going to make me give a shit about anything that goes on in this movie; and Snyder is so awful at delineating between the different planes of reality, that their relationship to one another (and the real world) becomes even muddier and less interesting.

    That's about it. Let me say, lastly, thanks for reading everyone – and chiming in!

  • Mony | March 24, 2011 9:17 AMReply

    From the trailers, I never understood what the story was and it seems from reviews I've read, no one really does either. Snyder should just not write scripts. It seems actions scenes are good though. I will probably check it out, but not in theaters.

    People think this review is bad. Michael Phillips gives it 0 stars.

    http://www.chicagotribune.com/entertainment/movies/sc-mov-0324-sucker-punch-20110324,0,3614830.column

  • The Playlist | March 24, 2011 9:10 AMReply

    @jimmiescoffee see Cory -- A Playlist reviewer's --thoughts. It says it all.

    And Drew, the reviewer will be the first to admit he has a love for visual, fantasy, genre fare, etc. There's just no dice on this one any way you want to spin it.

  • Marrrk | March 24, 2011 9:08 AMReply

    right, but can i jerk off to it?

  • abe | March 24, 2011 9:02 AMReply

    If Ryan Gosling was in this, you would have given it an "A"

    He is so DEVASTATINGLY EMOTIONAL!

  • Cory Everett | March 24, 2011 8:59 AMReply

    People will dismiss this review until they see it. As someone who enjoyed Dawn Of The Dead, 300 and Watchmen (even with its flaws), I'll also say that this film is a disaster. It's extremely ambitious which is admirable but it doesn't work on any level, so you can't give it a pass.

  • Yo | March 24, 2011 8:59 AMReply

    My problems with Snyder are as followed:

    A) Excessive use of Slow motion. I honestly think Watchmen is a 40 minute film if you played everything at normal speed.
    B) Lazy use of popular songs. It's worked one time- Bob Dylan on the Watchmen credits
    C) Disgusting overuse of post digital color correction. The whole world is NOT in shades of orange & teal!
    D) He somehow takes himself too damn serious! I mean if Sucker Punch was 90 minutes of hot chicks doing stuff in cosplay outfits I would've loved it. Instead he tries to make it have a meaning because he takes this shit seriously. It saps the fun out of everything.
    That was the same problem with his Owls movie. Instead of being a fun, cute little Owl movie it was LORD OF THE OWLS: HOLOCAUST EDITION

  • jimmiescoffee | March 24, 2011 8:54 AMReply

    this was an F before reviewer even saw it.

  • Kathleen Walsh | March 24, 2011 8:47 AMReply

    Great, well-written review, Drew! Pretty much meets exactly what I was expecting with this...

  • The Playlist | March 24, 2011 8:47 AMReply

    @Marko
    Traditionally speaking most oulets try and use a different writer for the review and interview.

    For the purpose you pointed out, and the reverse, so there isn't favoritism. A journo who really liked the actor or director might want to give the film a pass, etc.

    We try and maintain that rule as well, but it's not always possible given that time, location, availability, etc.

    it sucks if you interview someone, you think they're nice, they're pleasant, etc. but you still feel the film isn't that great. But what are you gonna do? We gotta be honest first and foremost.

    Not sure what Ken is suggesting exactly, but it sounds pretty naive.

  • bobmorton | March 24, 2011 8:46 AMReply

    im curious how teen girls will respond to this film, seeing as how everyone just keeps talking about the fanboys...

  • Marko | March 24, 2011 8:33 AMReply

    No, I'm just assuming that you get a different person to review the film than the one doing the interview so that you feel less awkard about giving it a bad review.

  • Playlister | March 24, 2011 8:27 AMReply

    we here at the playlist, well, we have a policy the we have to use the terms "scene chewing" or "chewing scenery" in every review, it makes us sound like we know what we're talking about

  • Brandon | March 24, 2011 8:23 AMReply

    I rolled my eyes... Mortal Kombat doesn't have 'levels'. Everything you said is what I was afraid this movie was going to be, so props for the heads up, but get your damn sh-- straight if you're going to compare a film unfavorably to something else. And what's with all the typos anyway?

  • Christopher Bell | March 24, 2011 8:17 AMReply

    We don't hate Snyder just 'cuz. If the movie was stupid as hell but still enjoyable on some level, we'd say that. Maybe we rag on him a lot but we can't give him the benefit of the doubt because we "pick on him" too much, you know?

  • th4 | March 24, 2011 8:16 AMReply

    good one doctor fart :D

  • Edward Davis | March 24, 2011 8:13 AMReply

    She needs to praise it? Maybe she'd comment here and say what she thought, but you're intimating that because she did the interview she has to like the film? Is that right?

  • Marko | March 24, 2011 8:05 AMReply

    So when can we see Leah Zak's review praising the film?

  • Edward Davis | March 24, 2011 8:03 AMReply

    Read the bylines and don't jump to conclusions. The interview was in L.A. last week. The review was by another person in NY last night.

  • ken | March 24, 2011 8:00 AMReply

    I suppose it's standard practice, but I would feel kinda awkward interviewing an actor/actress/director when I know my website is about to bash their film into oblivion.

    I would like to see a more honest interview next time you guys get Zack Snyder, you know like, "Hey we hated your movie, why do you think we hate you?"

  • Karl | March 24, 2011 7:57 AMReply

    I look forward to a double feature of this and Battle: Los Angeles.

  • doctor fart | March 24, 2011 7:52 AMReply

    surely, no one is going to be surprised that you hated it. you guys take every opportunity to bash Snyder and maybe it's warranted on some levels, but it mostly just makes it impossible to trust you on anything to do with the man's work. it must suck to not be able to just enjoy a movie on a purely entertainment level. Not everything can be a South Korean revenge fantasy told in multiple points of view and has a 16 hour run time.

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