Sucker Punch centers on an endangered, institutionalized girl who escapes into a fantasyland in order to retreat from the horrors around her. The problem is, it’s not really her fantasy she escapes to – it’s that of writer-director Zack Snyder.
Snyder is a stylist who can do something special when given rich material (Watchmen), but here he’s working with a questionable original screenplay that he wrote with Steve Shibuya. The line between liberating grrl power and exploitation can be a blurry one, but not in this case. Sucker Punch is a faux-feminist piece of trash.
The heroine, Baby Doll, is a bleach-blond, pig-tailed imp played with a pliable blankness by Emily Browning (think early Britney Spears, but without the personality). She escapes assault by her stepfather only to be thrown into a mental institution, where similar defilement awaits. On the eve of a lobotomy, she drifts off into an imagined reality, where she and a handful of other inmates alternately rehearse for a sketchy dance revue and battle against fire-breathing dragons and futuristic robots. Altogether, it’s something like a video-game tie-in to Burlesque.
These sequences are occasionally intriguing – I liked how the evil soldiers in the World War II scenario are powered by gears and steam – but they also reveal the movie’s true heart. Would a girl surrounded by sexual predators seek refuge in a daydream set in a brothel? Or imagine sword fights with samurai warriors while wearing a short skirt? This isn’t the imagination of a young girl; it’s the fantasy of a 14-year-old boy steeped in kung fu, “Call of Duty” and online porn.
In its elements and its attitude, Sucker Punch is going for a Kill Bill aesthetic. Yet the movie that came into my mind was 2009’s Precious, another tale of an abused girl who seeks comfort in daydreams. The difference? Precious was a galvanizing exercise in real-world despair. Sucker Punch is a fantasy within a fantasy within a fantasy, each a bit ickier than the one before.