When it comes to female empowerment, the Spice Girls don’t have anything on the girls in Zack Snyder’s “Sucker Punch.”
Ginger, Baby, Scary, Sporty and Posh danced around in wonderfully goofy outfits and coordinated makeup and encouraged young women to be at peace with their bodies and their brains, but did the Spice Girls tote machine guns and samurai swords? No. Did they slice robots in half or annihilate orcs? I don’t really remember that scene in “Spice World.” And though the ‘90s singing group certainly tapped into a feminist vein the pop world hadn’t experienced since Madonna, they didn’t really take that many risks with their music. “Sucker Punch,” though, is awash with gambles – from Snyder’s soundtrack choices to his script. Much like the director did with previous films like “300” and “Watchmen,” he gives us a dark, dreary world in which hope is hard to come by and most people are bloodthirsty jerks. The most important difference, though, is the most obvious: That in “Sucker Punch,” the girls make all the rules.
Snyder has given us powerful female characters before, but in “Sucker Punch” – the first film he’s ever written, produced and directed – he perfects them, crafting girls that desperately want freedom but are also, at their core, still young and impressionable and afraid. Even with a heavy hand that sometimes includes unnecessary narration, Snyder gets girlhood pretty right, depicting the struggle between trying to be strong while also realizing your own limitations. Sofia Coppola understands this fragile balance (just look at “The Virgin Suicides” or “Marie Antoinette” for proof); with “I’m Not a Girl, Not Yet a Woman,” Britney Spears did, too, even if her actual road to adulthood was later embarrassingly shaky and defined by shaved heads and umbrella attacks.
Thankfully, the girls in “Sucker Punch” have fancier weapons than umbrellas, and better outfits than Britney, too. Snyder uses narration to introduce us into this world, encouraging us to look past appearances and learn that we “hold the power over the worlds we create” (it kind of sounds like what the sorceress told the prince in “Beauty and the Beast,” honestly). Anyway, so in this dark and gloomy corner of Vermont in the 1950s, a girl named Baby Doll (Emily Browning) gets shipped away to a mental institution after accidentally killing her little sister while trying to protect her from her would-be-rapist stepfather. The stepfather wants to hide Baby Doll away from the authorities in case they come asking about what happened, so he basically sells her to an orderly named Blue (Oscar Isaac), who assures him that a doctor will be coming in five days to perform a lobotomy on Baby Doll.
The process, which would effectively erase her personality and her memories, would keep Baby Doll from spilling her secrets. Horrified by the prospect and her new prison, full of crumbling concrete and other desperate teen girls, Baby Doll imagines an alternate reality: The hospital is really a club. The other girls are dancers, or really prostitutes, who are similarly trapped and abused. Instead of being an orderly, Blue owns the venue; hospital therapist Dr. Gorski (Carla Gugino) is their dance instructor; and the doctor who would perform Baby Doll’s lobotomy is now the High Roller (Jon Hamm), a seriously rich client who Blue wants to impress.
And then within this alternate reality (get ready for some dream-within-a-dream, “Inception”-type fantasies), there’s another one, where Baby Doll and four other girls in the asylum – sisters Sweet Pea (Abbie Cornish) and Rocket (Jena Malone), as well as Amber (Jamie Chung) and Blondie (Vanessa Hudgens) – work together to find a way to bust out. A wise man (Scott Glenn) has told Baby Doll in her dreams that they need to find five items to escape, and so the girls use their imaginations to travel to different worlds to get them. As they shoot their way through zombie German soldiers and fight a furious, fire-breathing dragon, Baby Doll and the girls have no other choice than to keep going. What do they have to lose? As Rocket says, “We’re already dead.”
“Sucker Punch” would be boring if these girls were emotionless Rambo types who didn’t mind annihilating others to survive, and it’s true that they easily (and thrillingly) slice and dice their way through bad guys. But when the girls are together, their relationship with each other and the trust they begin to develop helps keep the film grounded in reality – Browning uses her big eyes and pouty lips to their best advantage as a young girl who just wants to be free of everyone looking to manipulate and use her, and Cornish and Malone work well as sisters divided over what’s best for them, simultaneously fragile and resolute. Chung and Hudgens don’t have to do much but stand around in their corsets and fishnets and look pretty, but they’re great at kicking bad-guy butt, so their lack of dialogue is acceptable.
It’s understandable that some could think “Sucker Punch” is more exploitative than it is empowering, just an opportunity for nerdy guys to watch hot girls fighting samurais and shooting guns. But just like Angelina Jolie did with “Salt” last year, Snyder makes these girls more than just eye candy: They’re living creatures with emotions and determination, and even if they’re wearing corsets and heavy layers of eyeliner, that need for justice can’t be subdued. What matters in “Sucker Punch” isn’t that Baby Doll wears cutesy outfits like Sailor Moon or that the girls work as prostitutes; what matters is the idea that any person, no matter how young or skinny or small, can become something bigger than what they are just by first believing they can.
Older teens will probably be interested in this one, and it should work for girls and boys alike: Women should appreciate the idea of our gender fighting back, and there’s enough action to keep guys satisfied, too, from zeppelins to machine guns. The fight scenes are fast-paced but not gory, so there are lots of weapons but not that much blood. Though there’s often the threat of sexual violence, you don’t actually see it happen; rape is suggested and discussed but never carried out onscreen. For example, the film’s opening minutes depict a stepfather scheming to rape his stepdaughters, and you’ll certainly understand the intention. Younger teens, however, may not be able to handle the fantasy violence or amount of sexual and emotional abuse that’s suggested here.
Snyder took a chance by giving us a big-budget action movie with heroes who aren’t muscle-laden men or imbued with superpowers, and “Sucker Punch” delivers with enough action and character development to keep his fans happy. And though the film falters with some unnecessary narration (Snyder should have mimicked what Ridley Scott did with “Blade Runner” and dropped it), “Sucker Punch” is enough of a wallop to succeed in spite of it.