At the beginning of his new movie “Sucker Punch,” the nervy young director Zach Snyder stages an elaborate riff on one of the signature shots of Orson Welles’s “Citizen Kane.” What starts out like a glorious act of homage to the history of movies and the velvety, powerful suggestiveness of imagery very quickly turns, like the movie that houses it, toxic and ungainly.
The movie’s incoherent, both ideologically and thematically. For all of his considerable talent for constructing imposing or startling imagery, Snyder appears dangerously uncertain what to make of the cumulative power and radical possibilities the form is capable of. The movie is meant to invoke a dream state, but the narrative line is too cluttered and spastic to locate the necessary rhythm and shape.
Worst of all, Snyder explicitly turns the viewer into sexual voyeurs, hypnotically leering at his cast of young actresses. The women, to be sure, are astonishingly beautiful, but they’re also ornate and never fully individuated to emotionally connect the material to the larger architecture of the story.
Snyder revealed considerable promise and panache with his “Dawn of the Dead” remake. His commercial breakthrough “300,” was problematic and somewhat indefensible ideologically. If the movie was a guilty pleasure, Snyder suggested a new and at interesting brand of moviemaker who was taking advantage of the breathtaking advancements in digital technology to push the envelope stylistically.
The digital manipulation of the movie image is the dominant technical development of the last two decades. The tools that are available today are truly dazzling, but it comes at a horrible price; moviemaking is now closer to writing fiction in the sense that entire worlds and physical spaces are rendered with an astonishing ease. The poetry of the movies, the subtle or delirious contrast of space and light, is not just absent though wiped from memory.
Given how fully “Sucker Punch” is steeped in the meaning and history of Hollywood moviemaking, it rings as particularly depressing how that history is debased and made small.
This is the first of the director’s features not based on previously published or recycled material. Snyder and his writing partner Steve Shibuya have constructed their own house of fiction or a puzzle movie, but the antecedents or references are fairly obvious. The movie’s a pastiche of hallucinatory, fever dream movies couched in vivid imagery of escape and freedom, from Sam Fuller’s “Shock Corridor” to Terry Gilliam’s “Brazil,” with the leering and suggestive dollops of David Lynch’s “Mulholland Drive,” or Paul Verhoeven’s “Showgirls.”
The movie begins with some promise. Like “Watchmen,” the new movie has a provocative title sequence ironically scored to Annie Lennox’s “Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This),” covered by the movie’s star, Emily Browning. The chiaroscuro lighting underlines an appropriately sinister backdrop of grief and loss in charting the bleak trajectory of Baby Doll (Browning). She’s a tragically beautifully and vulnerable young woman assigned to an institutional asylum after her intent to save her younger sister inadvertently leads to horrible conclusion.
From the opening image, the parting of the theatrical curtain that reveals the proscenium of the stage, “Sucker Punch” traffics in a free and daft manner of disassociation. Based on the architecture, the clothes, furniture and brand of telephone, the period of the movie is the distant past, the late 1950s or early 60s. The music, with few exceptions (like Grace Slick’s “White Rabbit”), is mostly modern.
That schism is emblematic of the larger narrative incongruities. The plot line cuts between two very different possibilities. Baby Doll is either a patient at a facility who’s five days away from a horrendous medical procedure, or in alternate narrative part of a group of women being sexually exploited by a gangster (Oscar Isaac). In this scenario, which becomes the movie’s default narrative, performance and identity are closely entwined. Immediately drawn to the collective, Baby Doll reveals to the other inmates her intention to escape.
Her assertiveness immediately places her in conflict with Sweet Pea (Abbie Cornish), the group’s nominal leader. The other members are Sweet Pea’s younger sister, Rocket (Jena Malone), Blondie (Vanessa Hudgens) and Amber (Jamie Chung). The most morally ambiguous character is Dr. Gorski (Carla Gugino), who is either a sympathetic psychiatrist, a sadist or a madam who ensures the girls’ sexual subjugation.
Ordered to perform, Baby Doll propels herself into another dream dimension where, visited by a Zen-like truth teller (Scott Glenn) learns she must acquire four objects: a map, a fire-starting device, a knife and a key in order to effectively stage her escape. Extending on the movie’s metaphor of performance for “being,” the movie breaks down into a series of fantasy vignettes where dance performances are unseen. Rather we see the substitute, Baby Doll and her friends battling walking corpses dressed as World War I German soldiers or a nasty race of cyborgs.
These fantasy fight sequences are rendered fully through digital animation; occasionally the process yields some very impressive imagery, such as Baby Doll’s mirrored likeness imprinting on the shiny exterior of the robot. Snyder is good at free-floating or the ecstasy of flight. The dirigibles and planes of the first vignettes are endowed with a Langian geometric patterns and shapes.
But it’s emphatically not cinema. The interpolated pieces are designed, cut and styled in the manner of video games, leaving it dense and immaculately rendered though also cold, immutable and deprived of any real emotional or philosophical consequence.
“Sucker Punch” is not episodic though mechanically constructed. The characterization and situations are either flat or nonexistent. Cornish is the only actress who survives with any real personality intact. Browning makes Baby Doll a compelling presence, but she’s also fairly blank and inexpressive. Snyder sexualizes her repeatedly, treating her like a manqué fetish, particularly in the fantasy scenes where the action emphasizes her bare midriff and white-toned thighs.
If Snyder is trying to say something about all of this, it is muddled and incomprehensible. The body count rises, but it means little. The title proves prophetic, and you walk away dazed and confused.