Reality is a prison. Spring break 2011: trapped on the island of O‘ahu. The streets overflow with prostitutes, the destitute denizens of a corrupt city. I stand on the balcony of my hotel; below me, a fight breaks out, and soon cops flood the scene. Desperate to escape, we drive to the theater, situated between an abandoned warehouse and a broken-down cannery. We see some mountainous Samoans, tattoos rippling along their muscles as they load pieces of bikes into a truck. Undaunted, we ask them about parking—
Wake up. Somehow, this place is a penitentiary no longer, though it’s still not without its trials. Inside an IMAX theater, we take seats on the stairs, all too aware of the glares of those around us, disdainful of our audacity. Theater employees walk into the room and head toward us, grim looks of duty spreading over their compassionless faces—
Overwhelmingly loud music, images so forceful they tumble from the screen. Suddenly everyone is gone and I’m alone, drawn into the movie, disconnected from pain and worry and self.
That’s basically how Sucker Punch worked. The film starts off with an incredible sequence entirely devoid of dialogue (my second-favorite opening in recent memory—right after Star Trek). The music pounds with a driving rhythm, and Zack Snyder’s signature slow-mo is used to great effect. The artistic style is stunning, and some of the crystal clear IMAX shots are beyond entrancing. I was immediately sucked in, and I simply wondered how long the movie would be able to sustain my adrenaline-fueled sense of total immersion. The answer was “the entire time.”
At the beginning, Baby Doll’s (Emily Browning) mother dies, and when her stepfather receives nothing in the will, he turns murderous. In an attempt to defend herself and her sister, Baby Doll shoots her stepdad but only clips him, and somehow her sister ends up dead. Things look grim for Baby Doll when she’s committed to an insane asylum run by a corrupt doctor who agrees to have her lobotomized so she can never tell her story. She lies down in the doctor’s chair and—
Wakes up. After that, none of the remaining scenes take place in reality until the last five minutes, and the rest of the time, it’s up to you to use your imagination to fill in what’s happening. So if you didn’t like it, it’s clearly because you’re uncreative (winky face). But seriously, while some films may be a metaphor, this is one in which every single scene is metaphorical, and the task of deciphering their meaning is placed on the audience.
Like Inception, this movie takes place in layers of reality. The lowest layer is the insane asylum. Then comes the imaginary world in which all the mental patients are dancers in a burlesque house. This world mimics the asylum in ways that are relatively easily linked, but the layers don’t stop there. Any time there would be a scene of conflict, drama, or action, instead of actually seeing it occur, we are whisked away to a chimerical world of pure fantasy. For those of you who doubt Zack Snyder’s screenwriting ability or level of intention, there are a few scenes that make it clear we’re supposed to read deeply into this layer system. At one point, Baby Doll is dancing in front of the cook, but some water is spilled, and it’s slowly flowing toward the radio. In the battle layer, the girls are trying to disarm a bomb, and some high-tension intercutting lets us know that if that bomb goes off, it’s equivalent to the water shorting the electricity. The way the stakes are heightened in one level through what you see in another level is an undeniably creative conceit that, in my opinion, was executed nearly flawlessly.
But don’t worry. This movie isn’t some plodding allegory that exists purely to enlighten us. It’s got more eye candy than a deranged, cannibalistic optometrist confectioner’s sweetshop. The cast is composed entirely of beautiful women, and as if that weren’t enough, they’re clad in sexy schoolgirl outfits in the burlesque layer, and during the battle sequences, they don hot femme fatale outfits and run around firing guns and wielding swords. What’s not to like? And my sci-fi and fantasy desires were more than sated. First we get to see a martial arts fight against gargantuan robot samurai with spears and Gatling guns; next a WWII battle against zombie steampunk Nazis that plays like a level of “Call of Duty”; then a fantasy castle siege in which the girls have to slay an army of Orcs, only to face a powerful, fire-breathing dragon; and finally a futuristic sci-fi thriller sequence on a high-speed train filled with robots guarding a ticking bomb. This movie was a combination of all the best action scenes from all the best genres, and it wove them together under the veil of a psychological mind-bender.
All the while, the film was artsy and stylistic, epic, and driven by a soundtrack so compelling that I downloaded it as soon as I got home. If you approach this film with the right mindset, you’ll be blown away. Make sure to see it in IMAX, because it’s imperative that your senses be bombarded as overwhelmingly as possible, and don’t forget that it’s up to you to decide what happens.
Despite all the layers and metaphors and everything, the most confusing thing about this movie is the title.