Saturday, 9 April 2011

The Reluctant Geek - Baby Dolls and other toys...

It’s no secret that I am not the biggest fan of Cheltenham’s rather soulless Cineworld. I’m hoping I can say this without fear of legal ramification, but if next week there is a free the Gloucestershire one notice here instead of the blog, you’ll know I’ve been needlessly incarcerated for my anti-corporate radicalism. Whilst under normal circumstances I would try to vote with my feet on this kind of issue, I do occasionally bow to peer pressure and turn up there anyway. They have cookie dough ice cream so it’s never an entirely wasted trip.

Thus this Tuesday I found myself shifting uncomfortably in my seat, cherry picking chunks of uncooked biscuity goodness out of my tiny cardboard tub and resisting the urge to give the chattering morons behind us a good slap. And all this for the sake of a little movie called Sucker Punch.

Let’s get this out of the way upfront. Yes, Sucker Punch has had almost universally negative reviews. Yes, it contains an awful lot of gratuitous shots of girls in tiny outfits. Yes, as a feminist I’m supposed to immediately dismiss it as misogynistic, fetishistic crap.

However, this week I have decided to wear my controversial hat (it’s stylish too y’know) and ‘fess up to the fact that actually, I didn’t hate it. I mean, don’t get me wrong, I’m totally not buying director Zack Snyder’s self-deluding suggestion that the movie is actually some kind of critique on geek culture’s attitude to women in general. You don’t get to condemn the drooling, objectifying wank fest that is porn culture at the same time as pandering to it. But there was some interesting stuff in there, amidst the school girl outfits and the gyrating dancing girls. (I’m not even against the idea in principle that the gyrating dancing girls were pretty damn interesting in themselves).

In brief, Sucker Punch centres around the too-pretty-to-look-at Babydoll. Falsely committed to a mental institution and facing the prospect of lobotomy, she escapes inside not one but two fantasy worlds, (ever since Inception, single-layered fantasies are so passé). The first is almost as grim as reality, a brothel in which she is an imprisoned virgin, bonding with the other girls against the Dickensianly grotesque men who control their existences. The second, more authentically escapist level is a hyper-real, post-modern dystopia in which she and her fellow patients are kick-ass, Whedonesque models of empowerment who fight dragons, resist Steampunk Nazis and destroy cyborgs.

A lot of the criticism focused around Sucker Punch accuses it of a certain level of simplicity. The girls jump around in their outfits for our titillation, Babydoll as the central figure is all pink cheeks, and long lashes and lightening blond hair and the fight scenes lack any real tension. Subtle it most certainly ain’t, yet I can’t help but feel that this particular line of reasoning slightly misses the point.

Because Babydoll *is* an archetype. She is every blond virgin ever to get lost in the woods and run about defending her honour and fleeing from wolves. It is surely no coincidence that despite being thrown around like, well, a doll, in repeated scenes, she always emerges without a scratch or blood-spot or smudge on her. Her innocence has all of the unassailable power of symbolism. This is immensely frustrating if you go into the movie looking for compelling, well rounded characters but for the most part Sucker Punch isn’t a character driven film.

What it is, is a fable; a dark fairytale with all the signs of such, including the comforting, repetitive frame of the quest on which Babydoll embarks. Just like Goldilocks tries out three different chairs and Snow White evades the Wicked Queen’s tricks twice before she falls for them, Sucker Punch’s heroine plays out her own pre-ordained path, returning thrice to her fantasy world to retrieve the magically embued items that will enable her escape.

Apologies… it all got a little bit literary there for a moment. But love it or hate it, there actually is a fair amount to say about Sucker Punch, and for me that makes it at the very least cosmetically worthwhile. One of the most effective elements was the contrast between the relatively emotionally detached fantasy world of the third layer, and the closer to reality setting of the second layer. A character who suffers whilst the girls fight futuristic robots is relatively un-affecting, but when the action snaps back to the brothel chef with a kitchen knife the stakes change. In the real world, innocence is no defence against greed or lechery or violence. In the real world, girls bleed.

It’s this dichotomy that lies at the heart of Sucker Punch and ultimately, in this that it packs the emotional impact its title promises. At the very end of the film, when both of the fantasy layers once more fall away there is literally nothing left of the film’s protagonist. Snyder dangles those escape fantasies in front of us, but ultimately he snatches them back. The possibility of hope exists, but not for everyone.

The bottom line is that Sucker Punch is flawed and massively problematic. But if I’m going to put up with the indignities of chain cinemas, then I want to see a film that makes me think, and it did. It ends with a call to arms, advising us all to "Fight" as Babydoll does. And every day, life demands that we all have to. But like the majority of humanity, Sucker Punch hasn’t quite figured out which battles it wants to win yet.

This week Kate has been inhaling the smell of leather


  1. Hi, Interesting review, although the feeling I'm left with is one of an imbalance.

    I can see and understand the points you raise, but I think you've missed a few things here.

    Firstly as a film review it would have been nice for some comment on the visual presentation style, and perhaps the audio. The film is pitching itself as a sensory 'treat' and I'm still none the wiser as to whether it is.

    Also consider the goals of the film, and whether it is fit for the purpose you want it to be. This film was never going to be cerebrally challenging. It is not pitched as an overly mentally stimulating experience. In Snyder's own words it is about 'chicks kicking ass'.

    What I would expect from this film is pure and simple escapism. I expect to see too-attractive people doing slightly impossible things. I want it to take me away from the mundane recession ridden country we live in and allow me a little time to indulge in a world that is just slightly too shiny for its own good.

    Obviously that's just my view, but I also believe that's what the goal of this film is. I don't believe it was ever supposed to engage you on more than a superficial level. I think you have to asses something on what it is promising to deliver, rather than what you hope it does.

    If it doesn't deliver this escapism, I'll happily slate it.

  2. It's worth pointing out that The Reluctant Geek is a column and as such this is a commentary on Kate's reaction to the film, rather than a review of it.

    As the editor, I tagged it as a review for ease, but in truth The Watcher (on Wednesdays) is our review forum.

    Personally, I didn't feel Sucker Punch was effective escapism. For me as a viewer, it simply didn't delivery. And visually the CGI was pretty poor and Snyder's speed up/slow down motif has become as tired as bullet time.

    It was self indulgent nonsense and a poor reflection of the power of genre filmmaking.

    Snyder - you have to try harder on Superman or I'll give up on you as a filmmaker.

  3. Its a shame that the visuals were not up to scratch, I'd have thought that the CGI would have been the films forte, that and the action scenes.

    It is risky if Superman is in his hands. Twirly capes just wont work. Maybe he's going the way-o'-the-Bay (as in Michael).

  4. Hi Shaun,

    Thanks for commenting. :-)

    Ben has said it for me really, but just to emphasise the point, there are lots and lots of other things I would've talked about here had this been a fuller review. I could have happily wittered on for ages about the casting and the script as well as the visuals!

    If Sucker Punch is billing itself as pure escapism (and I'm not sure I'd agree that it is to be honest) then it's misleading and ill judged marketing.

    One of the things about the film I was most struck by is the extent to which it's a movie with schitzophrenic tendencies; apparently deliberately so. Snyder wants to lull us into a sense of falsely complacency where all we are really expecting is hot girls kicking ass so that the film's final scenes are all the more shocking. They deliver the Sucker punch for which it is named.

    How successful this is is more dubious, but I would strongly argue that Snyder wanted it to be more than a popcorn movie. Some of his interviews on the subject would appear to back this up.

    Ben and I disagree on this one, but I think it's still worth a watch. The visuals, whilst hardly ground breaking, are often pretty, and actually the fact that the movie attempts to be *more* than pure escapism is the thing that saves it from total mediocrity.