I saw Sucker Punch, the next movie on The LIST today, accompanied by my usual partner in crime Margaret, a.k.a. The Cerebus Fangirl. I have to admit, this is not the movie I was expecting, given the trailers and clips released online.
True, the action scenes were kinetic, explosive, and not a little fan-servicing, but they really weren't the focus of the film. If anything, they were just the icing on a much deeper cake. But I really can't explain why without going into spoilers.
The movie operates on three levels of reality, although it spends most of it's time on only one. The primary level of reality, as hinted in the trailers, is of Emily Browning's character, who is only called by the nickname "Baby Doll" being committed to an insane asylum after a series of tragic (and criminal) events. She is ordered to be lobotomized (illegally) in 5 days, and we actually see the procedure begin.
And then, in a sudden shift, we enter the secondary reality, where Baby Doll is instead sent to a burlesque club/bordello, and the 5-day threat is to her virtue, not her cerebral cortex. This is the reality we spend most of the time in, and (to be honest) it's a bit dull. While it's clear that Zack Snyder (the director) wanted to make the characters sympathetic, we get so little back-story on most of the other girls that they seem like ciphers. Really, the only thing allows us to tell Amber and Blondie apart is Amber's race. Otherwise, we have no idea who they are, why they are prostitutes, or what makes them different from the multitude of other "danncers". We get slightly more information about Sweet Pea and Rocket, but not much. And that's only because they are sisters.
In any case, Baby Doll is made to dance, and that catapults her into the tertiary reality. which is the one where all the over-the-top action takes place. Apparently, she only exists at this level so long as she dances, for as soon as she completes her first mission, the dance concludes in level 2.
(This is actually one of the niftier bits of the movie. We never see her actually dance, but only the impact of it on other characters. a daring conceit, and executed well.)
The film dances between the secondary and tertiary level, as Baby Doll's plan to escape is reflected in her adventures in various alternate worlds (or partly the other way around. Things get fluid after a while). At first, she and the others do very well, winning their missions and gaining the proper McGuffin for their escape plan.
The rest of this review are BIG spoilers, so turn back now if you don't want to know more.
Soon enough, things fall apart on both levels, and there are deaths.The secondary level ends with Baby Doll sacrificing herself so that Sweet Pea, the only other survivor can escape and return to her family. Baby Doll explains that it was really Sweet Pea's story, all along, as she was the only character strong enough to survive on the outside.
But then, we are catapulted back into the primary level, where the lobotomy completes. But things are not that clear cut, as we learn, through dialogue, that many of the events of the secondary level ALSO happened during the five-day gap, and indeed one of the patients escaped.
The orderly (who was the club owner in the secondary level) gets his comeuppance, and we see Sweet Pea manage to get on a bus to go home. Except... the bus driver is the Wise Man, a mentor figure we only ever saw on the tertiary level, who lies for her so she can board. The movie ends with a voice-over, referencing some earlier dialogue about self-reliance.
(Also, apparently, a musical number, but I didn't stay for the credits.)
The ending is the real "sucker punch" of the film, and reminds me of the "bad" ending to Terry Gilliam's Brazil, although we do get somewhat more of a happy ending in this version. Actually, much of this film reminds me of that work, what with the oppressive real world twinned with an idealized reality. There are also elements of Alice In Wonderland, and (surprisingly) Grant Morrison's recently completed Joe the Barbarian (if Joe was a young blond woman with a penchant for schoolgirl outfits). Actually, the fluidity of reality in this work is very Morrisonian, particularly as the second and third levels begin to meld.
Would I recommend the film? I'm not sure, really. The action scenes are very well done, and Snyder doesn't overuse his favorite "slow motion action" trope too much. But they really aren't the focus of the film, and only take up maybe a half hour of screen time. We are meant to focus on the secondary level plot, instead, but the lack of emotional connection to many of the characters harms it, and turns in into an ambitious, yet ultimately flawed, experiment.
Still, it's a tremendously VISUAL film. I've seen it described as a video game as film, and I can see where that comes from, despite being a non-gamer. The cinematography and fight choreography take things to another level, and there's no artificiality, despite the presence of steampunk German zombies and giant samurai with miniguns.
I'd say that it's a decent popcorn film, and worth seeing in IMAX for the visuals alone. A bigger screen means you get more of the subtle touches.
Oh, and one more thing: Am I the only one who wondered if Scott Glenn's Wise Man character was originally written for David Carradine? He certainly had that vibe....