I saw Sucker Punch, which is Zack Snyder’s new film and the first he has done from an original idea rather than an adaption of a pre-existing concept. As Snyder is a director with undoubted visual flair but a track record of making some odd additions and changes to his source material I approached this with curiosity as much as excitement.
In 300 Snyder’s additions to the story are amongst the weakest scenes within the film, including falling into the cliche of repeating lines of dialogue that have different meanings depending on the speaker and situation. Interestingly, they are also differently lit than the remainder of the film, having a distinct blue tint rather than the rest of the film’s red hue.
In Watchmen some of the changes simplify the narrative of the film, but a lot strip characters of their complexity and scenes of their subtlety. I have to say that he brought an angle to Adrian that I hadn’t previously considered, but I find the performance of the aged Silk Spectre fairly awful (an actress he goes on to use again in Sucker Punch).
Despite my reservations I have enjoyed Snyder’s earlier work and certainly didn’t consider not seeing Sucker Punch. And it starts well, using a very efficient opening sequence to set up the background of the protagonist using well shot imagery that played on our knowledge of the situations it related rather than spelling it out explicitly. While not difficult to follow or abstract or impressionistic, it achieved a lot by suggestion rather than explicit revelation. And most of the shots were beautiful.
As the story unfolds we have a semi cryptic female voiceover and are introduced to a series of stock characters who never really get fleshed out through the course of the film. The main focus of the film never actually talks in what we are presented as reality (the film seemingly occurs on 3 levels: reality, the first delusional state and the outright fantasies in the delusional state) and the events of the film occur as delusional flashback she experiences within moments of the end of the opening scene and the start of the closing one. But, with Synder’s frenetic pacing and raw impulses, it never feels as structured or brilliant as the superficially similar Inception.
One of the things about Sucker Punch, because it uses our expectations and knowledge of events from other films to avoid having to flesh out the scenarios it presents in order to save time and cram more in, is that it invites implicit comparisons to other movies and characters. That none of the characters are ever known by anything other than their nicknames makes me think of Hitchcock’s Rebecca or a spaghetti western (with one of the girls even called “Blondie” despite clearly being nothing of the sort) and each character is defined broadly and quickly, with little to no shade or depth.
The fantasy set pieces are all spectacular and worthy of the price paid to see the film. And there are several of them. Shorn of the necessary supporting structure to make sense or carry dramatic weight, they sit as clear moments of fantastic escape. But they’re wonderful visually and each set in a distinct time and place that is recognisable from history and other films. That they all feature the same cast in different situations is testament to their simplicity and immediacy and they all unfold similarly despite their disparate settings. One oddity was the lack of actual bloody violence, with all the violence featuring near superhuman levels of punishment endured by the girls and their enemies, and the enemies themselves all inhuman and dying without any blood.
The girls are all given their own character moments, but there characters are all familiar and defined by events rather than any real sense of who they are. I would say the most clearly Caucasian get the most screen time and most sympathetic traits, but I am not sure if this is my own prejudice. None of the cast do a bad job but there is precious little here allowing anyone to shine save the elder mentor.
Again, the familiarity of the character roles and the roles themselves echo to many other films. And that ties back to the structure of stories within stories and the crypticism of the narration. The music and some of the fantasies are wildly anachronistic but there are hints also that the asylum setting itself could be a fantasy. Rather than being a film that sets out to define and challenge structure and be deliberately ambiguous it is more a collection of cool visuals and exciting scenes in need of a coherent and over reaching narrative.
Arguably the most similar films I have seen are Kasshern and Shutter Island. As I feel both of these are big on style but structurally flawed I would argue it is a fair comparison. Sucker Punch looks great, has some utterly brilliant sequences and makes for a series of adrenaline spectacles, but isn’t actually very challenging or even particularly developed.