Now, don’t get me wrong: when I say “perfect,” I don’t mean Sucker Punch is a perfect film in general. On the contrary. It’s a bad film! The script is spare, uninspired, and tedious, and the acting (with the slight exception of supporting actors Oscar Isaac as “Blue” and Carla Gugino as “Dr. Vera,” and the pathos-saturated sad face from lead Emily Browning as “Baby Doll”) is equally tedious and as thin as tissue. Fortunately, this isn’t exactly a review of the film but a critique.
Now, don’t get me wrong. . . again. While I declare the film as bad, I also loved it. I had fun time watching it and would willingly see it again in the theater a couple more times. The action sequences are as amazing audio-visually as they are the epitome of sound and fury signifying nothing. And pardon me if I prevaricate about the shrubbery and mention the 800-pound gorilla only so much as to say I can’t really discuss the 800-pound gorilla. (By which I mean the 800-pound gorilla that’s the object of 15-year-old boys’ dreams dressed up in fetish costumes not lacking in stockings and garters. How’s that for a disturbing image).
I don’t want to discuss the over-saturation of objectified female sexuality in the film (which is difficult as that’s basically what a solid half of this film consists of), because while I count myself as a feminist and constantly aware of the use and effect of themale gaze, I do happen to be a privileged male and the owner of a male gaze. On top of that, while I don’t accept all (or most) of what evolutionary psychology claims, I also don’t dismiss the concept and some of its hypotheses out of hand. So, if I try critiquing the blitzkrieg use of sexuality in the film, I’ll likely get accused of being too sympathetic to its use or unqualified to critique (even to criticize) it since I am a target consumer of the cinematic male gaze. (A criticism I often hear about many subjects and ideologies. Which I, obviously, don’t believe. I think it is indeed possible to critique a thing even while existing within its sphere of effect. If that were true that it weren’t possible, then, for example, since all of western culture operates within the contradictions of postmodern capitalism, any kind of Marxist criticism would have to be impossible. Sorry, Fredric Jameson — you need to find a new career!) So, end of topic right there. (Except to mention this amusing and sadly accurate comic I read just today, by feminist blogger Jen McCreight.)
What I do want to discuss is how Sucker Punch exists as the distilled and purified essence of postmodern production. And to do so, I’m afraid I’m going to need to be spoilery. So, if you’ve not seen the film and want to remain surprised (it would be much too easy to insert a joke there), read this after viewing.
The film exists in three realms or reality: layer one is the “real world” which lands somewhere in the 1950s, best I can tell from the brief view of automobiles, layer two is the fantasy-world brothel inside Baby Doll’s head as she tries to cope with being institutionalized by her abusive stepfather and an impending lobotomy back in the real world, and layer three is the action vignettes that represent the fantasy world of fantasy world’s Baby Doll. Now, I have to give writer/director Zack Snyder a bit of credit here for not trying to trick the audience into thinking layer two or three is the Real World or that layer one is actually layer two and there’s a unrevealed layer one to be pulled out as a shock ending. However, this doesn’t get him off the hook for making layer one just as fantastically impossible as the other layers — and that complete disregard for any semblance of reality within the real is one of the primary reasons for the film being perfect postmodernism.
The movie opens with a slow-motion montage of scenes showing Baby Doll’s mother’s death, funeral, establishing threat of violence from stepfather, accidental death of Baby Doll’s younger sister as she tries to protect the younger sibling from their evil stepfather, and then her being institutionalized. The only sound on top of this establishing background setup, is a cover of The Eurythmic’s “Sweet Dreams” with the lyrics “Some of them want to abuse you” placed like a delicate sledgehammer on top of the scene of stepfather entering the bedroom, like an auditory Lord Privy Seal. And it’s from this opening segment that the dislocation, the crisis of historicity and sincere schizoidness, that mark late postmodern artistic production is established. We, the viewer, are given clues to the setting being some olden day of curvy cars and men wearing hats, but the sound places us in modernity. (Not to mention the fact that the song is a remake which adds yet another layer of separation from any idea of the original, or the authentic.) The film situates us in a simulacrum of an historical moment with no interest in actually representing authentic history. The quasi-1950s setting of the movie essentially becomes nothing more than style — not setting, not placement.
The dizzying, disorienting confusion of time and place only increases from there. In the layer two world, in which we spend most of our time (actually, that may be debatable; the wall-to-wall action scenes of world layer three seem like interruptions, but actually may account for half the film or more), Baby Doll, as the “new girl” trapped in the brothel, is compelled to dance as part of her job to entertain the sleaze the establishment caters to. We never see layer two Baby Doll dance, as that is when she enters her head and we’re transported to various war/fantasy/sci-fi battle sequences, but we do get to hear the music that gets played on the 50-year-old reel-to-real or radio. And that music includes such classics as a souped-up remix of Björk’s “Army of Me,” a remake of Jefferson Airplane’s “White Rabbit,” a hip-hopped mashup-remix of Queen’s “I Want it All” and “We Will Rock You,” and a cover of the Beatle’s “Tomorrow Never Knows” (which, ironically, sounds in its original 1960s form like a 2000s Chemical Brothers’ techo-rave track. Weird, that).
Now, as I admitted already, I’m a wall-of-sound mindless-action-flick fan (to an extent; Jurassic Park 2 was the worst film I’ve ever seen and I have no interest in the current Transformers CGI porn), so a significant part of me really loved the music, it’s grab-your-eardrums-and-feed-them-to-you-with-gunpowder sonic brutality. But the cognitive dissonance of hearing the thumping indie-industrial music of “Army of Me” played by a Slavic-ish choreographer on a reel-to-reel in a mid-20th century dance studio in a brothel-prison, was enough to actually short-circuit my thinking for a moment and leave me literally disoriented. That kind of guerrilla attack on the senses, leaving one’s thinking disconnected and susceptible to better apprehending Lacan’s Real, was an intentional tool of “theatre of cruelty.” (The 60s attempt to use the technique of Artaud and surrealism ended up being just a late modernism parody of surrealism, by the way.) Sucker Punch’s use of sensual-shock-treatment is, I believe, entirely unintentional and without any greater purpose than an exercise in style. Thus, exhibiting, no, embodying, one of the arch-typical qualities of postmodern art — that of pastiche.
What Zack Snyder intended by the title, Sucker Punch, can only be guessed at. The film implies that Baby Doll’s dancing, unseen by the film’s audience, leaves all who view it stunned and bewildered — sucker punched by a performance only they are exposed to. Though, that might be too subtle for Snyder. Maybe he’s referring to the beatdown the various baddies in the layer three fantasy worlds get (giant samurai, steampunk Nazis, orcs ripped right from Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings films, terrorist robots…). Perhaps he’s being meta-aware enough to be commenting, tongue in cheek, on what the movie delivers to the audience: The mismatched and cobbled elements that make this Frankenstein’s monster of a film hits the viewer from beginning to end with a relentless barrage of simulacrum, washing over the viewer and pulling them into a riptide of hyperreality. At best, maybe he is self-aware enough to consider that he’s hitting the audience with an audio-visual shock to the senses — after all, the poster tagline is “You will be unprepared.” But this only supports the contention that Snyder’s only goal with this film is to have no goal, only to affect. Only to create sensation disconnected from anything concrete, anything with a veneer of tangibility. Snyder wants to blind-side pummel the audience and then disappear without a trace before the viewer knows what hit them. When your only interest is in stylized effect, there’s no reason not to use re-makes of music without connection to the setting, which is itself a carnival mirror reflection of an attempted setting, punctuated by completely unreal collages of literally pointless action (albeit exciting and expertly crafted) appropriating and blending elements from across multiple genre.
I couldn’t help but wonder, as I sat for the ending credits, how much of any of this analysis could apply or appeal to the younger members of the audience. I wonder if filmgoers who don’t know what a reel-to-reel is, couldn’t tell a 1950s car from a 1920s from a 1980s, feel an iota of the disorientation I felt watching it. Do younger viewers, who have entirely grown up in a culture inherently of pastiche and ahistoricity, feel the least bit of anxiety when exposed to cultural production which seeks to simulate, blithely unironically, a reality that doesn’t exist? Does the obvious fantastical elements counteract the fact that the movie, apart from the fantasy, exists in crisis? Or does all of it exist to the viewer on the same plane of blatant unreality? I compare this film to last year’s Scott Pilgrim vs. the World. That movie was skillful on many levels and entirely fun while managing to have a solid storyline and characters one can feel something for. But from the beginning of that film, which is solidly set in contemporary Toronto-area, the viewer is asked to accept that the world of the film exists in a different reality from our own as videogame elements co-exist with the presumed real. What makes Scott Pilgrim simply a postmodern production while Sucker Punch is postmodernism itself? I think it comes down to how while both films attempt to anchor time and place to our own reality, we can recognize reality in Scott Pilgrim even though it’s superseded by the impossible. Sucker Punch presents us, from the opening seconds, with a lie. It promises to be rooted, at least on one layer, in reality, and it (the gestalt of the filmakers) may even believe it’s sincere in doing so — but the fact that the reality it believes it’s anchored to is as fantastical as the 40-foot, machine gun-totin’ samurai it presents, we’re fed the very antithesis of what science fiction provides: discognitive estrangement. And this mirrors the very condition we live in, in late postmodern cultural logic.