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Writing Fantasy

  
At The Picture Show
March 2011

Madness? This! Is! STYLE!!

'Sucker Punch' is all dressed up with nowhere to go

Sucker Punch
Warner Bros. Pictures
Director: Zack Snyder
Screenplay: Zack Snyder and Steve Shibuya
Starring: Emily Browning, Abbie Cornish, Jena Malone, Jamie Chung, Vanessa Hudgens, Oscar Isaac, Carla Gugino, Jon Hamm and Scott Glenn
Rated PG-13 / 1 hour, 49 minutes
Opened March 25, 2011
(out of four)

Wait, so Warner Bros. gave this guy the keys to the Cadillac? With arguably its most valuable property - Superman - on the line, the gig goes to a filmmaker with a remarkably spotty (if not downright poor) track record; a filmmaker who has yet to put together a single film that has really worked from beginning to end.

But here we are. The studio is rolling the dice with Zack Snyder, whose credibility takes yet another hit with Sucker Punch.

With this one, it seems like Snyder had a fantasy fetishist's dream and decided to make a movie about it. His pitch to the studio was probably something along the lines of, "I'm going to put mental patients, robots, Nazis, dragons, mechanical samurai demons, sadomasochists, sexy schoolgirls, zombies and machine guns all into one movie." I was almost disappointed we didn't see any vampires. I mean, if you're trying to make geek-porn, you might as well go all the way.

Anyway, the final result plays like the world's worst Frank Miller impersonation.

I don't really have a problem with Sucker Punch . . . as a video game. I'd probably play this video game. As a movie, though, it's so dramatically inert I can hardly believe it. It's some feat to make a movie about attractive scantily-clad women fighting all manner of villains and creatures, and somehow make it boring. But Snyder pulls it off.

His failure to enliven the material in the film (despite all the extravagant visual details on display) is symptomatic of his persistent weaknesses as a "stylistic" filmmaker, especially since 300. Or, to go further, it's symptomatic of a fundamental flaw in the way we see or judge "style" in film altogether.

I've always hated the style vs. substance argument - primarily because the two are not (and, in movies especially, cannot be) mutually exclusive. So that's not what I'm getting at, I assure you. What I'm interested in is the way a filmmaker's stylistic proclivities function within their films - or, in the case of Snyder, the way they lack function. He goes for a sense of deliberate artificiality that's blatant and even eye-popping, but all too often his idea of artifice seems to have no frame of reference. This is not style - it's the idea of style.

At least with 300 and Watchmen, we could say replicating the sensibilities of comic-book frames was the general visual concept. This time around, I'm at a loss. People will call the world of Sucker Punch "stylized," but there doesn't seem to be any reason why any of it is "stylized" the way it is. I could dance my way through a clever rationalization if I really wanted to - hey, I was an English major, after all - but a rationalization is all it would be. It's not even that it's showoff-y. Showoff-y I can handle. It's that there doesn't seem to be any purpose other than a broad, vague idea of "unrealistic" (which it is) or "dreamlike" (which it's not). I have no idea what Snyder thinks he's accomplishing with his stylistic choices.

Unless what he thinks he's accomplishing is making a two-hour movie that's virtually indistinguishable from one of those video-game trailers we see so often these days. In which case he has succeeded.

Sucker Punch involves three almost entirely unexplained levels of reality - a dream within a dream within a dream, only without any of the pesky intellectual or logistical reasoning of Inception - but even in its brazen un-reality, the images and special effects thrown up on the screen leave little to no impact. They're just arbitrary elements seemingly designed to give the film an unearned sense of style.

But if Snyder wants to call himself a stylist (and it's quite obvious he does), he's going to have to earn it. There are countless filmmakers known as much for their stylistic choices as anything else (and too often criticized for it), but generally speaking we can pinpoint the specific effects or purposes behind those choices - be it Kubrick, Lynch, Tarantino, Gilliam, Lester, Fellini, Resnais, Scorsese, Leone or Andersons P.T. and Wes. The list could go on. Snyder, on the other hand, reminds me of something Roger Ebert wrote in his Battlefield Earth review: "The director . . . has learned from better films that directors sometimes tilt their cameras, but he has not learned why."

Similarly, Snyder has learned how to make things look cool - in fact, really cool at times, even in Sucker Punch - but has not learned why, or for what purpose. And unlike his two graphic-novel adaptations, he has no readymade defense this time.

So much about Sucker Punch is inexplicable, it's hard to know where to begin. On one hand, I admire its attempt to tell an almost completely interpretive story, with one "reality" blending into an expressionistic interpretation of it, and that version blending into the green-screen, video-game incarnation. On the other hand, the way it plays out is a messy and idiotic cocktail of disparate ideas and intentions, from the visuals down to the dialogue.

How's this for a gem: In one of a string of baffling moments, the sage/warlock/angel character played by Scott Glenn utters the following: "Don't ever write a check with your mouth that you can't cash with your ass." Especially given the context of the scene, this may be the single most nonsensical slice of dialogue I have ever heard in a movie.

Look at that, I've gone this whole review and only just now have I mentioned a member of the cast. Which makes sense, since Snyder seems so uninterested in getting actual performances out of his actors. I'm sure he would have liked to, but . . . hey, look at that cool exploding blimp!

Anyway: Emily Browning plays Baby Doll, a 20-year-old girl framed for the murder of her sister by her evil stepfather and thrown into a madhouse. While institutionalized, she teams up with four other girls (Abbie Cornish, Jena Malone, Jamie Chung and Vanessa Hudgens) - who, depending on which reality we're in at the moment, are either fellow inmates, strippers/escorts at a high-class gentleman's club, or fightin' machines in an apocalyptic CGI war zone. Here is where I'd like to say, "Trust me, it makes sense when you see it" - but I can't, and I won't.

Look, I love a filmmaker who bends or even obliterates the rules, or makes his or her own. But Snyder does no such thing in Sucker Punch - or if he does, he sure doesn't know why he's doing it.

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