One of the more uncomfortable feelings a film goer can experience is suddenly becoming aware that you've been thrown into the deep waters of a director's sexual fetishes. The feeling can be lessened if you share a filmmaker's predilections like Michael Bay's fascination with vacant asexual sexpots or David Lynch's damaged porcelain angels but it is nevertheless odd to realize that what you're seeing isn't a director's vision of the innate heroism of a Peterbilt semi, but rather the intimate details of what gets a complete stranger off. To varying degrees all filmmakers infuse their productions with their own sensibilities but with the auteurs, those filmmakers whose unique style is evident from mere frames of their work, the individual's sexual preferences come through loud and clear. In the case of Zack Snyder's Sucker Punch, those preferences are so disturbing and obvious, they take the viewer completely out of the film.
The film follows a young woman called Baby Doll (Emily Browning) who is interned at gothic mental asylum by her abusive step-father after accidentally killing her young sister. Once Baby is banished, she begins to imagine her surroundings as brothel/nightclub casino where she is also an unwilling captive and within that fantasy, a superhero tasked with retrieving four objects that will allow her along her fellow sex slaves (Jena Malone, Abbie Cornish, Vanessa Hudgens, Jamie Chung) freedom in all realities. She is opposed by the drab mental institution supervisor/dapper pimp Blue (Oscar Issac) and psychiatrist/madame Vera Gorski (Carla Gugino). Sucker Punch's Inception style plot reads more complexly than it plays out. If you've played Silent Hill or American McGee's Alice its structure will be immediately familiar to you. Snyder, who also co-wrote the film, knows his audience well enough to play to their interests as well as his own.
The broader pop culture referencing in the film, the Brazil sampling samurai gun fight and the Lord of the Rings style medieval castle siege work well. They're modular scenes that mostly eschew the skeevy sexual politics of the rest of the film and showcase Snyder's talent as a filmmaker who can craft compelling images, if not satisfying. The film looks amazing and more expensive than a film with twice its budget. Sucker Punch occasionally falters when Snyder leans too heavily on his music cues or lets a slo-mo shot extend longer than it needs to but the film is never less than engaging. And Snyder makes an excellent case for himself as a musical director in a scene added in the extended cut of the film where Issac and Gugino cover the hell out of Roxy Music's "Love is the Drug." In the realm of Baby Doll's fantasies, the film has an exhilaration and scope that found little competition in 2011's oddly reserved action films. But the film falls apart outside of the hyper-reality of imagination.
Browning, who is an unstoppable force of nature in her 21st century alt-culture mega mix vision sequences, is a depressed, crushingly unempowered non-entity who finds herself and her fellow dream time Amazons are the victims of causal menacing and sexual abuse. Malone's character is nearly raped early in the film and its inferred that the women of brothel are made to perform fetishistic "scenes" to the amusement of their grotesque Johns before and after servicing them. And the this life of unremitting misery and brutality is supposed to be the escape fantasy of the main character. Now, one could explain away this bleak fantasy as the concoction of a mind warped by the guilt that comes from killing a family member but that's crap. That would be some elaborate and titillating self hatred for an emotionally scarred 20-year-old to have.
The truth of the matter is that these images of skimpily attired subjugation come wholly from Snyder's pop scarred psyche. This is made undeniable in the director's cut of the film which adds something like 18 minutes to the film's running time and little to its substance save for an extended ending for Baby Doll. In the scene, Baby finally encounters the High Roller (Jon Hamm), a John of great influence and wealth who's come to Blue's casino to claim her virginity, a corollary to the surgeon who's coming to asylum to lobotomize her. But when the fateful moment comes, Baby Doll, beaten and emotionally broken by the hilarious supporting character slaughterhouse that is the beginning of the third act, is carefully laid out in front of the suprisingly handsome and gentle John. It turns out the well heeled Roller doesn't want to take Baby by force, he wants her to willingly submit to his advances after which he will "free" her. Amazingly, she consents, giving into the handsome stranger in a way that reads as more of a final act of victimization rather than "total victory" that the film claims it is. Snyder takes pains to ensure that the horror of this visual metaphor isn't lost on anyone. I can see why this scene was deleted from the theatrical cut of the film. The monstrous implications of it make it undeniable what Snyder's intentions are; to use and abuse beautiful women until their completely corrupted and broken which is when they can be disposed of as cavalierly as possible.
Sucker Punch is interesting film and a successful one in that it's designed to excite and titillate those in the 18-34 demographic who have an abiding love for cult cinema, anime and video games but it's a failure as a female action film in that it objectifies and destroys its heroine, who is ultimately a failure with a glee and precision that crosses over into the obscene. Snyder portrays women in a way that at first seems empowering but on closer examination betrays a deep misogyny. In Snyder's worldview women can be powerful and actively sexual but only after their power is forcefully taken from them and all the impressive CGI and narrative shell games in the world can't hide that kernel of contempt.