I will start with a non-spoilery review, and then launch into a detailed analysis of Sucker Punch from a feminist perspective.
I know why critics did not like this film. And so in this review, I will tell you what you need to bring with you, so you can enjoy the film as much as I did.
First, watch this trailer. It is the best of the trailers, and gives you a good setup to help you understand what is going on. It is a deeply-psychological movie, in the tradition of David Lynch (Twin Peaks, Blue Velvet) and Charlie Kaufman (Eternal Sunshine of a Spotless Mind, Being John Malkovich). Additionally, it is a "layer" film, like Inception or The Matrix -- there are multiple versions of reality. Armed with that knowledge, you should be able to suspend disbelief, sit back, and go with it. No part of you should be screaming "That would never happen!", because when you're inside someone's mind, anything can happen.
That said, the fantasy action sequences should not be considered gratuitous. This movie illustrates how the human mind deals with severe trauma in order to survive. If you have a basic understanding of dissociation -- the idea that the mind can detach from reality in order to not experience pain -- the entire premise is not only plausible, but meaningful.
You are joining a girl's fantasy, created to protect her mind from the terrors she will experience in a mental institution in the early 20th century. Unlike Lynch's Mulholland Drive, (Salon.com analysis here), the narrative is well-portrayed in a chronological, clear storyline. It is easy to follow if you understand the premise at the outset.
In other words, be prepared to take certain parts of the film unseriously. Enjoy the ride. Take other parts very seriously.
It helps to have seen a number of darker comic book movies like 300 and Sin City, as well as a few over-the-top kung-fu movies like Kill Bill, Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, House of Flying Daggers. Being familiar with Japanese animation will also help. Snyder very much captures the feel of all three genres.
A basic understanding of feminist issues will also contribute greatly to your enjoyment of this film. When the credits rolled, I said: "This film is a summary of the experience of women throughout the 20th century." My hope is that women will have a better time of things in the 21st. In the meantime, this film has much to teach the ignorant about the plight of women. It is a primer. If you think feminists are a bunch of angry women who whine for no reason, or bra-burning dykes seeking revenge against males, go see Sucker Punch, and then come back and read my analysis.
Lastly, be prepared for a very dark story. It crosses some barriers of what's "ok" to do in a movie plot. Be prepared to let go of your notions, because much like another Zack Snyder flick, The Watchmen, this film is unafraid of revealing harsh reality in a fictional guise.
If you are a writer or connoisseur of storytelling, and have not seen the film, refresh your memory of the Hero's Journey before viewing. It follows the steps very closely, and it was a joy to watch this unfold. There is perhaps, arguably, even a meta-Hero's Journey, which I mention with a bit more detail in the spoilery section.
Many critics slammed the acting, but I enjoyed the actors. Somehow Emily Browning (Baby Doll) captures the essence and spirit of an Japanese anime schoolgirl, even though nothing about her looks Japanese. She manages to pull it off in spite of her Scandinavian eyes and too-blond hair. She fills the rest of the film with soulfull looks that seem to tap the heart and the "ethereal beauty" centers of the brain.
Those reviewers who did not understand the psychological premise, or those who were unfamiliar with or do not like the genres listed above, may have thought the film incomprehensible or over-the-top. But mostly, critics hated it because they did not have the feminist context through which to interpret this film. It breaks certain rules and exagerates certain norms, the combination of which I believe many people would find disturbing or nonsensical.
If good stories examine the human condition, then this is one of the best.
Now, go see it, and then read my analysis.
Warning: Here There Be
This movie tells the tale of a girl placed in a mental institution in the 1950's. Really, it could be set at any time from 1890-1970, which is why the fashions and sets contain so many anachronisms. The essential structure of the plot actually happened to tens of thousands of people, particularly women, through that time (and before). All it took was an accusation of insanity by a significant male (father, husband, brother, doctor), which would typically go unquestioned, and a woman could find herself in Baby Doll's place: Committed to an institution rife with mental, physical, and sexual abuse. Not only that, she is on schedule to receive a lobotomy.
If you accept that this tragic premise is so true, so incredibly real -- if you understand the history of these women, who were entirely powerless and could do nothing but try to cope -- then you can understand the rest of the film. It also helps to note that while the psychiatry field has been "cleaned up" in recent decades, and rarely perpetuates these abuses, this reality of powerless women still exists in many other areas of life, even here in America.
Then we are faced with two layers of Baby Doll's fantasy world. In one, she is being placed not in an institution, but in a 1930's bordello. In fact, some part of me wondered if that was her "true" reality, since this is the layer we are most frequently return to. The rape subtext implied in the institution is replaced with ownership-prostitution, and we see that there aren't many differences. In both they are powerless, in both they are used, in both they are treated like objects.
And in both, with no other tools (or "weapons" as the film euphamistically calls them), they are forced to use their sexuality to attempt escape.
This is a shocking fact that many movie-goers do not wish to face. Women should not have to use their sexuality to get what they want, but the sad reality is, women with no other options must and will use their bodies. And for doing what they must, they are later harshly criticized, and sometimes further victimized, for doing so. It is the last choice available for Baby Doll and her friends, and so they take it.
When Baby Doll dances to distract her captors, we never get to see her moves. She dissociates from a distasteful, unpleasant use of her body, the way many victims of sexual assault do to survive the physical and emotional pain. (And I wonder if "dancing" in the bordello layer is an escape from sex on the institution layer.) Her form of dissociation plunges her into a third layer of fantasy, wherein she is a powerful warrior equipped with a katana and pistol. Here she is capable of destroying dragons and twenty-foot demon samurai. Her sexual power transforms into real power. The other girls are likewise equipped with symbols of male power: machine guns, shotguns, knives, swords, and perhaps most threatening of all (to the male hierarchy), technical expertise with helicopters and airplanes.
Yet the women are still sexualized in their scanty outfits, which one reviewer called an unzipped geek-boy fantasy. Even here, Baby Doll cannot shake the sexual roots of the power she is using in the "real world". She may be defeating steam-zombies and high-tech robots with impossible slow-mo battle moves, but in reality she is just shaking her booty to distract the men so the other girls can gather the tools of escape.
Reviewers can blame the writer and director for the situation these girls are in, but Zack Snyder merely holds a mirror up to our own society. (I believe the The Social Network intended the same thing, when every single woman in that film (with one exception) was brutally objectified.) Many don't like what they see, and even fewer understand, and so they are left squirming, vaguely aware that something is not right. But when one in four women in America are sexually assaulted, many before the age of 18, we need to make films, (and yes, even PG-13 films with glossed-over details), to expose the seriousness of these crimes towards women. (More rape statistics here.)
Perhaps, like Baby Doll, society itself likes to dissociate, fantasizing of a world in which women are happy with their lot, where females are really powerful, and where rape doesn't exist or doesn't hurt anyone. We want our movies to support these fantasies, and when they do not, like in Sucker Punch, we fail to comprehend it and criticize it as done by a "filmmaker who has absolutely nothing original or even coherent to say." (New York Post review) And yet this is one of the most original and thought-provoking movies I've seen all year. I would expect those ignorant of white male privilege to be blind to its merits.
Even at the end of the film, when Sweet Pea boards the bus to freedom, it is only by the grace of a male that she gets away. After all that work, she must still pass a male gatekeeper, who knows nothing about her, yet through the kindness of his heart, lies to the police and lets her get on the bus without paying for a ticket.
Like The Social Network, there is but one powerful woman in this movie. And she is the psychiatrist, Dr. Gorsky. Yet even her power is subjugated through the "good old boys network" run by an evil orderly, who falsifies signatures and takes money from men to get rid of troublesome girls. Once she learns of this racket, she has the ultimate authority and has Blue arrested. Yet she is incapable of saving Baby Doll or any of the other girls from their tragic fates. Her powerlessness is reflected on the bordello level of reality... There she plays a harsh Madam supposedly in control of the girls, but we soon learn that she is just as owned by the club-owner as they are.
Even in their fantasy world, they are aided through the missions by a male "commander", Wise Man, who takes not only a mentor role, but also that of an officer, a superior. Even equipped with weapons and fighting skills, they cannot escape their roles in a male-dominated society.
The only "real" male who shows any sympathy for Baby Doll is the lobotomist, who displays a spark of regret for what he has done and calls attention (too late) to the falsified signature. In a deleted scene, he also plays the High-Roller with whom Baby Doll has a loving sex scene -- but oddly, this was cut in order to give the film its PG-13 rating. The one time Baby Doll has control of her sexuality, using it willingly and for her own pleasure, it is cut to make the movie more palatable for modern society.
By the end, Baby Doll must sacrifice herself to save one of her fellow women. This further punctuates the story of American women throughout the last century -- lacking any other power, many women found themselves sacrificing their own comfort, freedom, or lives, for the sake of their sisters and children. Or even for the sake of their men. I'm talking about sacrifice of body, career, education, life choices; choices of who to marry, when to start a family, where to live, what political views to hold, what talents to pursue, whether to own property, when and who to have sex with, and so on. In fact, Baby Doll's sacrifice is a sexual one: By revealing herself to the men on the bordello-level, she is sentenced to have sex with the High Roller. (She defends herself ineffectively by kicking a man in the groin, a stark contrast to the fantasy world in which she kills a dragon with a sword.) In reality, it means her mind will be destroyed through the act of lobotomy... She will be turned into a passive, submissive woman, so she can play her rightful role in society.
Many of the reviewers criticized Sucker Punch as a feminist revenge film. But I simply cannot agree. In the battle fantasies, not a single male human is killed. Read that again. Yes, they kill steam-powered German zombies. Yes, they kill Orcs. Yes, they kill robots. Yes, they kill dragons. Yes, they kill demons. But it is no accident that the one chance Baby Doll has of killing a living human male (the map-courier in the German trenches), she refrains. Instead of lancing him, she uses her sword to lift the map from his shoulders.
Even when Blue tries to rape Baby Doll, she stabs him, but not fatally. He is still alive enough to attempt the rape again, this time post-lobotomy, when her last remaining defenses have been ripped away. These women, even when they become ultimately powerful, do not use their powers for revenge.
Many critics disparaged this film's PG-13 rating. Michael Medved thought it should be NC-17. Yet what was so challenging in this movie? No sex. No nudity. Very little, if any, bad language. Cartoon violence. Very minimal use of blood (blood on her fingers when her sister dies, blood seeping through fabric from Blue's and Rocket's stab wounds). NC-17, for that?
I will tell you what was so challenging in this movie, and these are not things the MPAA bases ratings on:
1. Women die. Lots of women die.
2. Women have power. Even if imaginary power, they have lots of it.
3. There is a subtext of rape. Lots of rape. It is never shown, in fact not even explicitly implied. If you know what to look for, it is merely hinted at.
4. This movie displays the harsh realities of being a woman in this world.
While the MPAA couldn't find this offensive based on objective standards, many subjective reviewers did. And that fact points not only to the ignorance society holds for these issues, but also to why movies like this are so desperately needed.
[A few side notes about the Hero's Journey and alternate interpretations of the ending: There is some guesswork as to whose reality we are viewing in the movie. Roland suggested that we are actually seeing two hero's journeys, of both Baby Doll and Sweet Pea. I began to argue, to point out that since the camera does not follow Sweet Pea, her journey, if she has one, is not being told. He counter-pointed that Baby Doll is Sweat Pea's mentor/guru (Supernatural Aid); that the main character is actually Sweet Pea, telling her own story through Baby Doll's lens. After all, Baby Doll does say "This is your story." It is interesting to think about.
Alternately, the ending where we get to see Sweet Pea's final escape may in fact be Baby Doll's fantasy. Perhaps Sweet Pea escapes, but from Baby Doll's point of view, she can only hope she makes it to the bus stop. The lobotomized Baby Doll must now live entirely inside her head, and she chooses Sweet Pea's escape for her own "paradise". This idea is supported by the fact that Wise Man is also the bus driver, someone none of them have ever seen before in the real world.]
This film stands at a historical cusp. Whereas many films today reflect a girl-power can-do attitude of third-wave feminism, I think this is more of a wish than a reflection of how things are. This film says, "This is how things were, and maybe how things still are, but the fantasy is the way things can be." With its mix of female powerlessness and female power, it fits the zeitgeist of the confusion many women now feel about what role they should play. Should I be like my mother or grandmother, exerting subtle manipulation as my only manifestation of action? Or should I be a male-in-girl-clothes, sporting guns and killing toy soldiers like the generations of second- and third-wave feminists before me?
Perhaps the tragedy of this film shows us that both roles are dangerous and lead to an equally futile conclusion. Perhaps we should throw away both the male and female "weapons" of the past, and forge new impliments of power. Fourth-wave feminism, now in its fetal stage, seems to suggest that.
UPDATE: Zack Snyder gave an interview yesterday that adds more interesting insights. It is worth reading in its entirety, but here are a couple of callouts:
Would you say the film is a critique on geek culture’s sexism?There has been a gender divide on whether people like this film. This goes along with what I said about society not wanting to pull down the curtain that protects their ignorant bliss. Likewise, geek boys are faced with the reality that they may not be much different than the Mayor, watching Baby Doll dance on the stage. They came to see a film about fighting girls with tits and asses, and while they're getting that, they're not allowed to be comfortable with their feelings.
It is, absolutely. I find it interesting, in a lot of ways, that this movie – of all the movies I’ve made – has been universally hated by fanboys. It’s like a fanboy indictment, in some ways. They can’t have fun with the geek culture sexual hang ups.
I thought it was basically you commenting on those attendants at Comic-Con who shout, “You’re hot!” at beautiful cast members.
Yeah! 100%. They don’t know how to be around it. It’s funny because someone one asked me about why I dressed the girls like that, and I said, “Do you not get the metaphor there? The girls are in a brothel performing for men in the dark. In the fantasy sequences, the men in the dark are us. The men in the dark are basically me; dorky sci-fi kids.”
It's a cruel bit of sadism on Snyder's part, and in a way, I almost feel bad for the geekboys... almost. And in this sense, maybe it is a revenge film. Revenge on the male audience. (And saying so makes me feel uncomfortable, because I don't like to think of myself as a vengeful sort of woman.)
Is it wrong to enjoy seeing Babydoll in that school girl outfit, though?And the big reveal: Snyder didn't do anything to evoke that sense of sexuality other than dress the women in school girl outfits. No intentional shots of the sort directors often make to add sex to the movie. In other words, any turn-on felt by viewers is their own damn fault... or... maybe they can think, "she shouldn't have dressed that way".
I have no problem with this dichotomy as to why she is in the outfit. You can say what you want about the movie, but I did not shoot the girls in an exploitative way. They might be dressed sexually, but I didn’t shoot the movie to exploit their sexuality. There’s no close-ups of cleavage, or stuff like that. I really wanted it to be up to the viewer to feel those feelings or not. Does that make sense?
As to how a man could capture the feel of the experience of being a woman so well... The truth is simple. He stayed humble and gave the actresses their own voices:
Most female action heroines are generally very interchangeable with men. Can you talk about the process of finding that specific female voice?This is a lesson that could be learned from self-described male feminists everywhere, one which some male feminists do well (like by boyfriend) -- but other well-meaning, condescending, protective men just manage to piss women off more. If you want to truly understand why so many women are <insert "unreasonable" opinion or emotion here>, then listen to them. Ask them. Stop making assumptions to protect your own vulnerable status, and trust their perspective.
As a man, you can only do what you can do as far as understanding the female psyche. I just tried to write as honestly as I could, so then the female actors would fill in the emotional blanks I left for them. I feel like the girls were really up to that and into that. I thought it was an interesting approach. A good example is when we did the scene where the girls were going to break out and they’re all saying “They’re in!” and they’re crying at the end of the scene. That’s not in the script, and that was just them. If I had written that, I probably would have thought it was cheesy and no one would cry at the end of the sequence.
It is interesting then, that so many reviewers complained about the "poor acting", when I thought the acting was brilliant. Maybe, like the film itself, the actresses were too honest.
Update 1/3/2012: Be sure to read on into the comments, as many of my readers continue to have fascinating insights and theories of their own.