Zack Snyder | 128 mins | Blu-ray | 2.40:1 | USA / English | 12 / R
Zack Snyder’s fifth venture in the director’s chair is his first not to be based on someone else’s pre-existing material; or, to put it another way, the first wholly original story from the director of 300 and Watchmen. On the strength of its critical and box office reception, he may be relegated from the chance of doing such original work in future (his next effort, as I’m sure you know, will be a reboot of Superman).
I read a good summary of the critical reaction to Sucker Punch somewhere: that critics (and viewers) split into two types, one who thinks it’s a shallow story-free brain-dead over-indulged video game of a movie, the other who think it has hidden depths and themes worthy of exploration. And both sides are likely to call the other stupid, one for not being bright enough to spot the subtext(s), the other for bothering to read stuff that isn’t there. I side with the group that thinks there’s something more to the film, which, as the minority, I guess makes this review a defence.
I’m going to start by discussing the difference between the theatrical cut and this Extended Cut, because for once I think it makes a notable difference. Indeed, why this isn’t called the Director’s Cut is unclear: Snyder reportedly had to submit the film to the MPAA five times before they were satisfied to give it a PG-13; the R-rated Extended Cut restores all that, so surely it’s the Director’s Preferred Version rather than Version With Extra Stuff Bunged In? Some of it is significant in terms of clarifying the film’s story, themes and real-world/dream-world juxtapositions. If you hated the film in its theatrically released form they’d likely struggle to change your mind, but for those seeking extra clarity they may help.
From what I’ve read, there are lots of changes here and there, but it strikes me there are four major omissions or additions:
- An extended Orc fight in the fantasy/dragon world. Fine.
- The dance number to Love is a Drug. I’d wondered why it got replayed over the end credits! Presumably it was cut because it was a bit too much like a musical, which is an understandable (people don’t like musicals allegedly) but disappointing decision. It adds to the film though, not just in terms of being Something Different, but also showing us what the club/brothel is like during working hours. It’s a great sequence.
- A climactic scene with Jon Hamm’s High Roller and Babydoll. I can only imagine how baffling it was for cinema audiences to see the Mad Men star turn up for one half-arsed scene (namely the scene which now follows the High Roller one, which had to be gutted to make sense in the theatrical version). It’s a tense, uncomfortable, challenging scene that adds a lot to chew over — especially in context of:
- The smallest cut in length, but perhaps the most significant: when the Priest first brings Babydoll to the club, it’s discussed that she’s there to sell her virginity to the High Roller. Cut (like everything else) to get a PG-13 and because of the connection to that High Roller scene, it might sound like a minor omission, but restoring it clarifies both character motivation and some of the film’s themes, while juxtaposing the real world and dream world with, respectively, lobotomy and loss of virginity.
This is where the film is better than some would give it credit for: it’s not just a muddled excuse for some action sequences, it’s a dream-logic battle by a girl poised to lose her mind… or, maybe, already has. While her stepfather is taking Babydoll to the asylum for nefarious purposes, there’s little doubt in my mind that she’s already suffering serious mental health problems — PTSD, quite probably, seeing as she accidentally murdered the little sister she was trying to protect after almost being raped by the evil stepfather her dead mother has left them to. If you know anything of the crazy, fractured dreams/hallucinations someone with a damaged mind can have, and apply that to this film, it begins to make more sense as a story.
(Major spoilers in the next two paragraphs.) That doesn’t mean it isn’t a problematic depiction of this. Is the ending really saying a lobotomy is a great solution to mental health problems? It allows Babydoll to escape her guilt and remorse for killing her sister, but that’s hardly empowering — giving in to it is, thematically, tantamount to suicide. This is supposedly offset by the escape of total-innocent Sweetpea, which wouldn’t have happened without Babydoll, but that seems scant consolation. And Babydoll’s stepfather escapes unpunished, apparently! Oh dear.
That it was Sweetpea’s story all along is also an interesting conceit. Snyder does contribute to this — Abbie Cornish gives the opening voiceover, we first see Sweetpea in a stage-set like the one Babydoll was on at the film’s open, and when we enter the (first) dream world it’s Sweetpea rather than Babydoll who emerges from the rotating transition shot. But is that enough? Because we’re undoubtedly in Babydoll’s head throughout the film, the only exceptions being the real-world bookends in which we only follow her. (We do see the result of Sweetpea’s escape, but the visual style makes it clear it’s Babydoll’s imagining of what happened.) Maybe this is Snyder’s ultimate aim: it’s someone’s story told from the perspective of a (particularly interesting) supporting character. A little like the end of Super, actually.
This isn’t the end of Sucker Punch’s thematic implications though. Some say it’s a deeply misogynistic film dressed up as a female empowerment movie — look at the hyper-sexy outfits, the ultra-action, the fact it’s set in a brothel… Others probably argue it’s about female empowerment despite all that, but one of the more convincing arguments I’ve read says it’s about female oppression: these characters think they’re independent and fending for/defending themselves, but everywhere they turn there’s a man in control. Even in the dreams-within-a-dream where the action sequences take place, the girls are given orders by a male commander and they follow them unquestioningly. I suppose it’s all down to your personal perspective whether you see this as evidence of misogyny or of a deeper, more thoughtful approach. Let’s be kind and see the latter, I think — it makes the film more interesting, more thought-provoking, and therefore more enjoyable. And enjoyable is good — if you’re setting out to hate a film for the sake of hating it then… oh, then just sod off.*
A far wiser man than I once theorised that any work of art, once completed and released, belongs to the viewing public rather than the artist.** (This is a lesson I feel someone needs to put to George Lucas.) Part of what this means is, if one reads something into the work — a thematic discourse, a moral message, whatever — then it is there, whether the author intended it or not. And if the author intended a certain message and you get the opposite, well, that’s right too (heck, even if you subscribe to the notion the work still belongs to the artist and only their intentions are valid, clearly they mucked up their delivery if you got the opposite). So, in other words, it doesn’t matter whether Snyder wrote and directed his film to ponder or convey certain points or ideas, or whether he just set out to create something that was “effin’ cool maaan, with, like, action and hot chicks and stuff, dude” — what I (and other critics) have read into it is still valid. So there.
Like the rest of the film, the soundtrack is divisive. Some think it contains weak re-workings of excellent classic tracks, others that it contains interesting and appropriate re-workings of excellent classic tracks. I must again side with the latter. For instance, there’s a Queen/rap mash-up that I actually quite liked, and this is from someone who thinks the Wyclef Jean bastardisation of Another One Bites the Dust on Greatest Hits III is an offensive waste of disc space. The standout is probably the opening sequence, five minutes of dialogue-free brilliance with near-perfect visual storytelling (albeit aided by familiar imagery of abuse), set to a haunting rendition of Sweet Dreams (darkly, thematically apt for the entire film) sung by star Emily Browning herself.
Really, Sucker Punch is a musical. No, most of it isn’t sung, but every action sequence is accompanied by a cover song specially designed to fit with it, many (or all) of which in some way comment on or add to what’s happening. Not a traditional musical by any means, obviously, but the way it’s constructed around these musical/action interludes belies the truth.
Said action sequences are all inventive, but they began to feel a bit samey to me. There’s just too many, and though they should feel drastically different thanks to the variety of settings, Snyder’s style links them too well: they’re all shot in the same brown/sepia hue and our heroes all use current-day weapons and vehicles, blurring what should be a clear difference between World War I with steam-powered Germans, an Orc-riddled fantasy castle, and a robot-guarded train on a distant planet. They sound incredibly distinct on paper, but on screen it’s confusing whether they’re meant to be the same world or not. The last of these, a single-shot running gun battle along a train, should be a balletic triumph, but by this point the action’s beginning to wear. I love an action film, and especially a creatively-rendered sequence, and Sucker Punch does have a ton of originality, but there’s perhaps too much of an onslaught. Maybe it’s less battering on later viewings — another reason they cut back on it in the theatrical version, perhaps.
All of the dream levels (we go at least two deep) invite comparisons to Inception, though they’re radically different films. I’m sure there’s an argument to be made along the lines of Inception being a product of a very organised, methodical mind — all steel city blocks and precise Escher paintings made real — while Sucker Punch comes from a crazed creative place — a random grab-bag of ideas and concepts. For all those who complained that Inception’s real-world-influenced dreamscape lacked the creativity and madness of real dreams, Sucker Punch should be a marvellous experience.
Part of me wonders if, had I seen Sucker Punch in cinemas, would I feel the same way I do now? Would those big omissions have obscured the thematic depth I believe is there? To put it another way, how much do the changes really add? You or I will never know for certain. But I do think Sucker Punch has been underrated. It’s not the masterpiece I hoped it might turn out to be when I first began to notice the themes I think Snyder was (consciously or not) tapping in to, but I do think it’s a lot better and more interesting than most gave it credit for.
* This is not the same as disliking a film that merits disliking. But that’s a whole other discussion. ^
** The man in question where I encountered this theory was Russell T Davies, writing in his and Benjamin Cook’s book Doctor Who: The Writer’s Tale. A completely unrelated article that I just happened to stumble across later reminded me that credit for the concept “that once a work of art exists, it no longer matters what the author intended” more properly goes to Roland Barthes. ^