Dear Sucker Punch,
There is an ethereal quality to you that raises in me a sensation so strong and omnipresent that I feel as though I cannot deny it, no matter how hard I try. As I sat experiencing everything you had to offer, taking in your sumptuous visuals and over-the-top set pieces, admiring the feminine physique of your almost entirely female cast of leads, I was powerless to stop the feeling from over coming me.
In spite of all the presuppositions and assumptions that your marketing instilled in me before I settled in to watch you, I could never have been prepared for the truth of your being. No, as you unfolded before me I was taken by complete surprise, and all of the thoughts I had regarding you melted away as the reality of your true self became apparent.
Sadly, that overwhelming feeling I talked about earlier was ‘disappointment’ and the reality of your true self is that you stand as one of the greatest examples of reach exceeding grasp that I have ever witnessed.
I know that may seem harsh, especially how I built up your expectations like that just to bring you back down to earth, but I felt like I owed you as much considering you did the same to me.
Before you begin trying to defend yourself, saying that you had nothing to do with your marketing and the commercials and trailers that lead up to your eventual release, let me say that I can conceive of no way that you could have been presented to the world at large that would have been honest. Unless, of course, your commercials simply consisted of a long equation stating:
Anime + Shutter Island + Inception – plot = Sucker Punch
Seriously, Sucker Punch, you were perhaps this year’s most ‘sure thing’ movie experience. You had all the goodwill that sexy women in an over-stylized wonderland of steam punk warfare and ninja combat could afford a movie – which is quite a bit. Yet you somehow managed to disappoint on every level.
Sure, you had all of the insane action that you had promised, but there was something antiseptic and false about all of it. In your eagerness to dazzle the audience with audacious spectacle, you forgot a few key things about crafting a successful action scene. Namely, for a fight scene to have any kind of weight for the audience, it needs to feature characters that we care about attempting to achieve a goal we can identify with. In addition, and perhaps most obviously, the danger of a given situation must be real and imminent.
You somehow managed to bungle each one of these very simple and self-evident criteria. For one thing, we never begin to understand the bulk of your characters in any real and meaningful way. Of your five female leads I can only really remember three getting any kind of back story, and two of those were sisters, so they more or less shared the same motives and background. So in the midst of all of the dragon slaying and German killing, I wasn’t watching people that I cared about, I was viewing a cipher-protagonist mowing down disposable, imagined enemies.
Likewise, the conceit that you used in order to facilitate the action you seemed so pleased with was lazy at best and nonsensical at worst. Baby Doll, your main character, has to dance in a brothel to distract everyone while her cohorts steal the items needed to escape the brothel. In her mind, as she dances, she imagines the scenes of mayhem that we witness. So we have, ostensibly, a world in which the act of stealing a knife from a cook who is distracted by a sexy dance number translates into a train heist that involves shooting a bunch of robots and disarming a bomb.
That the aforementioned scene holds no tension and elicits no emotional response until we leave the imagined world to see that the cook has noticed one of the girls lifting his knives should clue you in to the real trouble with this conceit. In the dream world we can’t worry or be concerned for the characters because what is happening to them isn’t real, and their over the top action is never really given a fully realized analogue in the real world. As such, even though we know that disarming the bomb means getting the knife, or slaying the dragon means getting the lighter, we are too busy caring about the brothel-based goal to worry about the fantasy goal.
But here, I think, is your biggest Achilles heel. The brothel world isn’t even the real world. The real world is the asylum that Baby Doll imagines as a brothel. Therefore, your over the top action isn’t just removed from the audience emotional by one level, but by two, because at the same time that slaying a dragon is actually stealing a lighter from the Mayor, stealing the lighter from the Mayor is actually lifting a lighter from an orderly. Since you never took the time to even try to establish the characters in this actual asylum – your base reality – emotional resonance with their brothel and fantasy epic counterparts is impossible because we don’t know which aspects of their personality are real or not.
This problem of disconnect is most jarring at the end, when you expect the audience to quickly identify one above all others, and yet this is the first time we have seen the real girl in the real world.
You see, in Inception the idea of multiple levels of reality worked because the characters remained consistent and the goal of the action never changed. No matter where they were, they were still trying to plant an idea in a man’s head, as themselves, with their own relationships retaining all of the same aspects. In your world, however, goals and character knowledge were constantly being swapped out for different versions of the same, practically discouraging consistent and growing attachment or understanding.
Add to all of these thematic and story-related problems a predictable ending that still manages to feel convoluted and you have what amounts to one of the biggest cinematic let-downs I’ve ever witnessed. You had all of the right pieces, but assembled them in a way that basically made them all inherently un-enjoyable and malfunctioning – like a cake that is ninety percent icing. Your makers failed to grasp that action-spectacle-sweetness is only enjoyable if it is balanced by the comparably bland cakey aspects of plot and story and character.
When I was heading off to see you, I remember stating that your plot could be either non-existent or completely ridiculous. What it couldn’t be, though, was something that strove for profundity and failed due to a lack of understanding of what made movies with similar reality-bending notes work. Sadly, you attempted something more than just empty spectacle, and ended up being a noble trainwreck instead of a mindless good time. Whether or not one is preferable to the other in terms of artistic achievement is something for ones greater than I to decide. All I know is that, as a fun time at the movies, you left me disappointed.
With deepest regrets,
Brian J. Roan