Sunday, April 03, 2011

The Fiasco of and Surrounding Sucker Punch (Zach Snyder, 2011)

I should begin by saying that half of the reason I went to see Sucker Punch was because of the incredibly bad reviews it's been getting. They aren't just bad reviews either. They are vicious. I've been trying to find it again, and I can't, but I actually read a review which declared that Sucker Punch is the end of cinema, and tried to seriously carry that argument off. My friend G.W. Ferguson, sent me a link to another review, which is hilarious, well laid out, a good piece of criticism, and is equally excoriating. It's been derided for having horrific narrative problems, slammed for being soft core porn wrapped in the male idea of feminism, and barraged for being all style and no substance. I haven't read film reviews this hateful in a good while. I have to admit as well, that I didn't read many reviews for The Last Airbender, the film to which I've been seeing this compared because I wasn't that interested in that film in the first place. M. Night Shymalan's stock had plummeted with me as soon as I sat through The Happening, and The Last Airbender seemed like a project with characters and a story a little too complicated for him at that point in his career. I say all of this for two reasons. The first is that as a result of reading all of this, I think my expectations for Sucker Punch were extremely low. The second reason is that I think the majority of these histrionics actually say more about us, the critical community, than they actually do about the film. Sucker Punch is a flawed film, with one or two relatively serious problems that should be mentioned, because they are mentioned any time a film suffers from them, but is nowhere near the abyss of cynical hatred for intelligence or the feminine as it has been depicted. 

All of that being true, I understand why the reviews for Sucker Punch have been written with the eviscerating glee they have been. I can also see how the film may have been a huge disappointment for people who were enthusiastically anticipating it. After seeing the trailers for it, I was definitely interested in it, but I've also gotten to the point that there are very few films I can anticipate solely due to a trailer. I've been burned too many times, and my ability to establish a love affair with a trailer has been singed to the point of becoming numb. I figured that at best, Sucker Punch would be a film rich in visual imagination and short on plot and character. And I think I might actually have been wrong. First, I'll explain what my reaction to Sucker Punch is and then I'm going to make an attempt to dig a little deeper into the critical reaction to the film, why it's been so horrifically hated, and why I think most of that is essentially cowardice on the part of a number of web critics or is misplaced anger, that doesn't have as much to do with this film as it does the state of the industry in a more general sense. Let's also not discount the fact that it's fun to write reviews for films which the writer has a complete and unapologetic hatred for or films that the writer is gushingly, fawningly in love with. As someone who has probably spent more time writing reviews in the last few years than the majority of the movie going public, I can tell you this from experience.

My first thought following the last frame of the films credits was that it was actually too many things. I get the definite feeling that Zach Snyder felt that after the success of Watchmen, he knew he was only ever going to get one chance to make whatever he wanted, and he was trying to pack everything he thought no one would ever let him do into this one film. It's visually impressive, but the narrative is jumbled, muddy and almost seems as if there are pieces of it missing. I wouldn't be completely shocked if at some point a "Directors Cut" were released that restores some of those pieces. This isn't to say that replacing what seems to be missing is going to make this the Citizen Kane of fanboy films, because it isn't, but I do think it will provide some answers to a number of the more sensible criticisms of the film. There are good ideas here, and the general concept of the film is actually pretty solid. The problems lie in the execution, which is often the case.

This film does provide one major realization, Zach Snyder is not a writer. He is definitely a director, but he's not a writer, at least not as good a writer as the director that he can be deserves. I really enjoyed Watchmen, and given the nature of that material, with it's multiple plot structure, the story within a story, I think he did a pretty fine job bringing it to the screen. Having read, enjoyed and developed a real love of the source material, I was skeptical when I heard Snyder was going to be taking the reigns, but he ended up delivering a largely solid film, as well done as any film based on that material probably could be. I've seen it a number of times already, and I'll watch it again at some point. 300 was also pretty spectacular visually, with some unmistakable script and story problems, but a generally fun, kick ass kind of action flick. After seeing Sucker Punch, I'm even more convinced Snyder's got at least one really good or even great film in him, maybe more if he hits his stride sooner rather than later.

What I also can't say about Sucker Punch is that it's just another mediocre piece of crap, pumped out by some studio or other just to separate every sucker who'll buy a movie ticket from their money. It's a film with really grand ambitions. Granted, it may fail to meet those ambitions rather spectacularly in some ways, but it's still better for an ambitious film to miss it's mark than to be assaulted with yet another rehash of the same thing we've seen every few weeks for the last twenty years, and will probably see more of in the next few weeks. There are three concurrent narrative levels happening during the film. Two of them are fantasy and one is "reality." In the first, we follow our heroine, "Baby Doll" through a horrific set of circumstances which unjustifiably land her in a mental institution. I do have to comment that I always find it hilarious when I see a sign in a film which reads, such and such hospital for the "mentally insane," because first of all, insane isn't a medical term, it's a legal term. It's a term the medical community doesn't actually use. I can forgive that though, since insane is the kind of short hand term that makes a specific point clear and which is more or less culturally accepted, but beyond that, is there a kind of insane other than that of the mental variety? Is there a physically insane? Or a physiologically insane? Possibly a metaphysically insane? It's kind of like saying, largely humungous. Setting that aside, Baby Doll finds herself institutionalized, and overhears a conversation between one of the hospital staff, and the man responsible for her unjustified institutionalization, which seals her fate. She's headed for the old orbital lobotomy chair so she can never reveal the truth about the events that landed her there. From there, we're introduced to the other girls occupying the ward. And we're quickly swept away to the first level of the films fantasy narrative which sees Baby Doll and the other girls, Blondie, Sweet Pea, Rockett, and Amber as dancers and prostitutes in a forties style high end brothel. In this reality, Baby Doll is going to be given over to The High Roller in three days time (coinciding with the amount of time before the lobotomist arrives in the actual "reality" of the films first narrative). She's forced to begin enduring dance lessons (given by Carla Gugino, who is also the psychiatrist in the first level reality of the film) to start developing the act she will perform in the cabaret show that is the front for the brothel. And when she begins to dance, we're swept into the films third layer, the fantasy within the fantasy, at which point Scott Glenn shows up, playing the benevolent sage who can provide Baby Doll the necessary directions about how to achieve freedom. This reality, is necessarily the most fantastic, and throughout the film involves everything from giant samurai which seem to possibly be demons, steam punk Nazi's, dragons, goblins, and killer robots. All of the real action sequences take place in this fantasy, and the entire film slips back and forth between the reality and the first level of fantasy with very little to signal the audience that it's doing so. The third level, the action fantasy, is only ever brought out when it's Baby Doll is required to dance for one reason or another.

Snyder is attempting to make a statement about the power of the imagination to overcome obstacles, obviously, but I don't think that's all he's trying to get at. The problem is that either there's so much on the cutting room floor, so much jammed into the film already or he's just not nearly a good enough writer to get across exactly what he's trying to say within the narrative and it's structure. If I were to sit through the film two or three more times, I could probably pull out exactly what it is Snyder is reaching for, which is something that when done purposefully, can make for interesting film, but in this case, it's not the result of the kind of careful consideration that presents a layered narrative in such a way that there is an obvious narrative arc, which hints or heavily suggests there is more going on beneath the surface. The audience walks away from the film with a head full of jumbled images, concepts, themes and suggestions that they are attempting to reassemble into something resembling a sensible narrative structure or thematic thrust. When the film is finished, there's definitely a somewhat after school special message in the last scene, the kind of thing that takes no account of real subtlety or actual human emotions or motives. The thing is, the entire narrative structure of the film strongly suggests Snyder was reaching for more than that. If you've no intention to do anything more than make a pat, simple minded message movie, you make a pat, simple minded message movie and go about your business. That film could have been any one of the narrative layers the film presents, all by itself. Attempting to thread all three together suggests Snyder had a lot more on his mind than that. Anyone who doesn't at least have the ambition to do more wouldn't bury that message under three layers of fantasy dimension narrative. It's possible that Snyder's talents don't match his ambitions, but again, I'd rather see someone with real ambition make a film that doesn't live up to those ambitions than see a film made with no ambitions that succeeds in being an unambitious, pandering and cohesive fictional structure, but completely cliche. Sucker Punch seems to suffer from suggesting too heavily that there is something else going on beneath the surface of the narrative, but failing to make it as clear as it should given the weight of that suggestion. Again, these are problems with the writing, though it could be argued that Snyder could possibly have found a way to develop a more concrete visual vocabulary to communicate the larger ideas and themes he's trying to impart. Given that film is a visual medium, I can accept that argument without comment.

There are also some problems with the script itself. Some of the dialog falls flat in certain scenes that need it to be more lively to give them the impact the overall story needs. When taking into consideration that the majority of the film takes place in Baby Doll's fantasy worlds, there's a real opportunity here to play with the language in a way that could make it interesting and engaging. When the visual presentation is going to go as far as Snyder does with that fantasy, I don't think the audience is going to throw anyone to the wolves for trying to make the dialog as interesting and colorful as each and every frame of this film is visually. They aren't expecting realism at that point. In fact, I don't think anyone walking into this film expects realism. At least a little bit of experimentation with the dialog would have been nice. It would have been a good opportunity to give the characters some more depth as well. Using the fantasy aspect of the film would have been a good window to giving the each of the characters their own style of vocabulary etc. It does betray the degree to which Snyder is visually focused that there isn't any attempt to give the dialog more snap in those sequences. I can say, without hesitation, that the script never sinks to the depths of duh that Battle: Los Angeles did, which is another reason I'm somewhat perplexed by the critical reception to this film. It's not like Battle: Los Angeles was received with open arms and warm kisses by the critical community, but it didn't get anywhere near the level of spite filled smarm Sucker Punch is being subjected to (with the possible exception of Roger Ebert, who has skewed both films thoroughly). The script for Battle: Los Angeles was gobsmackingly horrible. It was like being smashed in the head with a giant hammer made of stupid, repeatedly. At no point during Sucker Punch did I find myself with my face in my hands, shaking my head, which is what happened more or less every time Battle: Los Angeles tried to get away from the action and "get serious." It was realleh, realleh dumb with a side of hurp and and extra helping of derp. All I have to say is... "Who's my little Marine?" My original review of that film was an extremely soft touch in comparison to what Sucker Punch is being subjected to, and I even commented in that review about the drubbing Battle: L.A. was getting. It's possible that I was so completely dumbstruck by how bad that script was, that anything which doesn't make me want to see all of the protagonists die as soon as possible, just so the movie ends immediately, seems a bit more acceptable than it would have prior to being subjected to that film.

I think those are the problems with Sucker Punch, if I take it as it's own film, with the goals and ideas it seems to establish for itself. There are larger issues, especially in the context of the critical community and American media as a whole, but I'll touch on those after I get to what exactly it is I think works in the film and for the film.

The first thing, that I think no one can really deny, and that I think many people have under appreciated considering that film is a visual medium, is that it is visually stunning. It's literally fantastic. Every single frame of this film is painstakingly gorgeous. Visually, it's one of the most fully realized worlds I may have ever seen on film, especially when considering how much of it is digitally created or built as a set, not shot on locations. It's gorgeous. When I saw Sin City in theaters for the first time, I said to a friend that it was going to change everything. That might seem like a really bold proclamation for a relatively silly film, but here's why it struck me that way. It was the first time I had seen a film whose entire world was fully realized and established it's own entire reality from nothing more than the imagination of the film makers, and was convincing within the reality that film was trying to establish. Obviously, it was a fantastic reality as opposed to trying to create a reality which seemed was more like the one we actually live in than not, but within that films confines, it was a convincing reality. What that said to me was that there were going to be film makers who were no longer bound by technical capabilities. They were going to actually be able to create visual representations of anything they could possibly imagine. Anyone who is familiar with the larger history of film, especially with a love of genre films, understands the enormity of that idea and the possibilities it opens up. There are scenes in Sucker Punch, all of them taking place in the third level fantasy world, where Snyder has created something in the digital space that has only ever existed in imagined worlds before. They literally bare almost no resemblance to things we find in reality. They look more like things we've seen before in paintings or in anime than they resemble actual things that exist. There's a sequence involving a castle, but it's not like a castle we've ever seen before, and the same can be said of the wide shots that take place when our heroines are fighting through an army of steam punk Nazi's, that bigger world is not something we've ever seen on film before. We've seen battle zones and battle fields before, but this takes it to another level. This is not to say he has created those worlds and fully realized them, because he hasn't. Within the confines of the story and the time he has with these specific scenes, it would be impossible to do so, but he does take another step in that direction by creating scenes and shots that strongly suggest that world is out there. It is going to be film makers taking steps like this which are eventually going to help some young film maker become unbound from the limitations have established the parameters of possibility, and that young film maker is going to create something that will be wholly unlike anything we have ever seen before.

One of the things I enjoy about film is variety. I love the fact that Seven Samurai and Airplane both exist. I love the fact that Citizen Kane and Hostel exist and that all of those films, and films in between all of those poles are loved by people. I think Christopher Nolan has done something incredible with Batman Begins and The Dark Knight by establishing that character in a world that is secured by a very grounded realism. He's given me the Batman I was waiting to see on screen since I was a kid. I watched Syriana again recently, and the degree to which that film is so very real terrified me considering the day and age we're living in. It's the films strongest asset. At the same time, I think there is room for real fantasy, and I'm looking forward to the day we start to see films which the visual imagination is able to ride out on the capabilities of the effects until the imagination itself can go no further, instead of the other way around. Sucker Punch is a small step in that direction. It may be a small step adorned with all the trappings of geek culture, and be something near a suggestive love letter to fanboys around the world, but it is still that step. I think Sucker Punch, possibly even more than Avatar, is the next step in that direction. Some of you are probably reading this and think that is heresy. I liked Avatar, but it suffered from many of the same problems this film does. It was visually stunning, but the story was extremely run of the mill and cliche. I'd even suggest that Snyder's created more of a fully realized world from imagination here than Cameron did in Avatar. Cameron basically created a digital representation of a rain forest. Was it impressive in it's scale? Yes. Was it impressive in it's detail? Yes. But is that something fully imagined or is it a recreation? I think Sucker Punch, possibly even more than Avatar, is the next step in that direction. Some of you are probably reading this and think that is heresy. I liked Avatar, but it suffered from many of the same problem this film does. It was visually stunning, and the narrative was somewhat disappointing. I'd even suggest that Snyder's created more of a fully realized world from imagination here than Cameron did in Avatar. Cameron basically created a digital representation of a rain forest. Was it impressive in it's scale? Yes. Was it impressive in it's detail? Yes. But is that something fully imagined or is it a recreation? Avatar's real accomplishment was in the quality of it's 3D, and don't think I'm discounting that, but it wasn't in the actual realm of creating a world, what was most impressive about it was the degree of detail Cameron was able to do that with. Leveling the criticism at Sucker Punch that it's derivative of so many other sources, is kind of ridiculous when you consider the degree to which every single movie ever made is somewhat derivative of or inspired by something else. At least in the case of Sucker Punch there is the real attempt and ambition to tell the story in a more interesting and less cliche way, even if it doesn't totally succeed. Now here's the real kicker, I do think Avatar ends up being a better film, but I respect Sucker Punch more specifically because of the risks it takes where Avatar didn't. James Cameron throws fastballs right down the middle. Zach Snyder tried to throw a breaking ball that never broke. The critical community, being the batter in this analogy, seems a little upset that in not breaking, the ball got a little closer to their chins then they'd like.

The other thing I thought worked well in the film were the performances. Emily Browning, Abbie Cornish, Jenna Malone, Carla Gugino and Oscar Isaac all do solid work. I actually did care about the characters in the long run. I wanted to see them reach their goal and get out. I felt a combination of disgust and pity for Carla Gugino's character, which is what I think was what the story was trying for, and I definitely disgusted and hated Oscar Isaac. For all of the hoopla and breast beating given to the lack of character development, I think the truth of that is due to the fact that Vanessa Hudgens and Jamie Chung's roles were unfortunately saddled with the same variety of character as the fourth crewman in the red uniform in any old Star Trek episode. It was evident from the beginning that they didn't have much to do, and the only question was how far they were actually going to make it. Apparently there are musical numbers missing from the cabaret that serves as the front for the brothel in the films first level fantasy, which Hudgens features prominently in. This would make sense considering her fame is due to her appearance in the High School Musical films, and there's no better way to shake off the typecast than to take a film which features you most prominently in musical numbers... only sexier.

All in all, I've seen much, much worse films. I have seen better films as well. What I don't think I've seen is an action/fantasy film that was as visually accomplished as this one is. Sucker Punch doesn't live up to it's own promise, but had it not been for the press need to pile on it as if ripping yet another piece of flesh from it's recently dead cadaver was going to earn them either a writing job that pays well or more respect from "real critics," it would have been remembered as an interesting, if not completely successful experiment by a director with a strong visual sense and style, but who obviously needs some help when it comes to the writing end of the film making process. Now, it will probably be remembered as a critical abomination, and people are already beginning to question whether or not Zach Snyder will be able to salvage enough of his reputation to put asses in seats for Superman: The Man of Steel, which is being produced by Christopher Nolan and written by David Goyer (you know, those guys making those Batman movies). I think with Goyer and Nolan on board to reign in some of his more outlandish instincts, Snyder can deliver a pretty interesting Superman film.

Now, we're going to get into both SPOILERS AND SOCIAL POLITICS. You have been warned.

Let me first suggest two different reviews/articles about Sucker Punch that are well written, intelligent, and avoid some of the histrionics many of the other writers have so gleefully engaged in. Both come from /, which has become one of the better sites for film news and related internet content. The first was written by Angie Han and is about the most hotly debated aspect of the film, whether or not it's exploitation, whether or not it is empowers it's female characters. The second is written by Adam Quigley and presents some defense for the film in regard to those claims and some others as well.

Sucker Punch has definite problems, but as I said earlier, I tend to be more forgiving of an ambitious film that fails to achieve those ambitions than a derivative, cliché ridden film that succeeds in being little more than cheap imitation on a large scale. The criticisms of the film that don't engage in the more hysterical bloviations of slightly over inflated egotism and are more straight forward do present some interesting questions about sexism and films place in the cultural discussion surrounding it. I do have one specific question about many of these claims. I'm not a woman, and I'm not going to wade into the question of sexism in film, in Hollywood or anywhere else, but many of the criticisms of the film are founded on the idea that there is a large audience of men in the country who enjoy depictions of violence specifically committed against women. In this case, they suggest the geek culture audience which the films imagery, the giant samurai's, the dragons, goblins, and killer robots seem to be tailored specifically for are the ones for whom the rest of the films imagery, very attractive young women in peril (and often under threat of sexual violence), is targeting as well.

I'm having a little bit of trouble swallowing that idea. I don't have trouble swallowing the idea that there might be an audience out there, made of men who enjoy seeing images of women being put in harms way or harmed. I think there are women's shelters full of women trying to escape just the kind of men who do enjoy seeing women harmed or in jeopardy. However, I don't buy the idea that there is a big enough audience who are specifically interested in seeing women harmed to bank a big budget action movies success on. One of the interesting things about the reaction to Sucker Punch is the discussion it has created. It is a flawed film, and one of the major flaws is that it is either attempting to make a real statement about the way women are perceived in popular culture or it is somewhat blindly indulgent toward what sociological discussions of feminism refer to as "the male gaze," but its narrative failures make it almost impossible to understand which, at least in one viewing. This claim also contains a blindness to the basics of narrative structure. Every narrative needs a dilemma, and most need a villain. They don't function at all if they don't succeed in making it seem as if the protagonist is under some real threat from the antagonist. That's the way narrative has worked in Western civilization for thousands of years, regardless of whether or not the protagonist is male or female. As someone who is a fan of both genre film and strong women (especially in real life where things actually matter), I personally find it somewhat insulting. I don't think making the claim that men want to see women harmed, especially sexually, is very different from saying "women are bitches." It's a gross generalization that essentially says more about the individual making that proclamation than it does about the group it is made about.

Another interesting thing in the criticism of the film is the number of different reviewers who have focused on the costumes, the way the characters are dressed. It can't be argued that the way these young women are dressed in the film isn't sexually suggestive, because it is. At the same time, I can't help wondering if focusing so specifically on the way they are dressed isn't the other side of the coin of bias, and that there's a good deal of malice being attributed to what ineptitude more properly explains. Here's the question I do have, if the characters and the film as a whole had been written better, presenting these women more three dimensionally, as women in control of their own destinies from the beginning of the film, instead of as women fighting for control, would what they were wearing matter to this discussion? If the costumes were exactly the same, but the writing and characterization were better, would the same people who are claiming the costumes are proof of sexism still be making those claims? At the end of the day, the question really is should what a woman is wearing really matter at all? If we're trying to get beyond the bias of physicality placed more specifically one women, why is what they're wearing always the focus of discussion, instead of something more substantive? To be completely fair, there have been some reviews that have addressed the failings in the script so far as character are concerned, before or after going for the "scantily clad" comments. On a personal level, these are two separate things. I can recognize that a woman is physically appealing, and also recognize that her character is or is not appealing. I think the same argument can be made about male characters in film. They may be physically appealing, and the character can be appalling or interesting. The two do not have to go hand in hand, and in a visual medium, it's not shocking that most of the films made are cast with people who are physically appealing, be they men or women, as the leads. If Brad Pitt looked like Hacksaw Jim Duggan, most women would never have seen Fight Club, which surgically skewers exactly the kind of male most of the negative reviews have been concerned with.

Don't get me wrong here, I know that sexism exists, and like any other form of prejudice, I find it morally abhorrent and intellectually bereft. At the same time, I don't think the classical objections to and arguments against sexism present any solutions or further the cause of ending that prejudice. It's a good deal more complicated than those ideas suggest now, largely because of the successes of many of the objections and arguments that did work in the past. Now, the larger question really comes down to what exactly the aim of feminism is today. In the past, it was a matter of achieving equality in the eyes of society. The things that stand in the way of those goals today, are much more straight forward like equal pay for equal work, promoting candidates to the highest levels of business and government in accordance with their qualifications instead of using gender as an excuse not to promote qualified and capable women to positions they can obviously succeed in.

Part of that same fight was about women having the ability to choose exactly what industries, careers, etc. that they want to be a part of instead of being relegated only to careers that had already been deemed acceptable by society, such as nursing, teaching and so on. At the end of the day, that's the problem that exists in most of the discussions related to feminism today. Women have more choices in their careers and lives than they've ever had before. Consider this, more women are making a conscious decision not to have children than we've ever seen, at least in the U.S. That alone presents a major shift in the psychology of modern women. For centuries, the two most accepted roles for women have been child bearing and child rearing. If women have not only begun to question those roles, but feel secure enough to relinquishing those roles, especially in the numbers they have, it suggests we have yet to have a real full account of the progress that has been made. If things hadn't changed in a relatively drastic way, there would be a lot more attention given to that women are choosing not to be mothers. And really, this is what I think is the problem with many of the arguments relating to feminism today, they often don't take that one very simple thing into account: individual choice. Understand, I'm not trying to make an argument against feminism at all, I'm more or less saying it needs an update to take into account the progress that has been made.

There's something left unsaid in the reviews that most stridently attack Sucker Punch as a deeply troubling piece of misogynistic propaganda. By making that accusation, it does, in a way, indict the women who star in the film as well. If they are being party to the objectification and victimization of women in general, they're most certainly doing it by being complicit in their own objectification and victimization. It is, after all, those very women who these same critics are seeing as having been the lens through which these crimes against the feminine have been committed. And so far, I have yet to see a single one of them even mention that they've attempted to contact any of the women who starred in the film to get a comment from them. Because they agreed to star in the film, and must have read the script prior to doing so, it's really impossible to make the claim that this film and it's director hate women so much, and leave these same women with no amount of guilt in having been accessories to such a crime. I'm somehow perplexed, how anyone, especially a number of the male critics, seem to think they're quite so able to speak about the misogyny of this film, thus partially indicting the women in the film, and never attempt to get a comment of any kind from its female stars. It is after all, a film full of women, so getting a comment from one of those women considering how horrifying this film was in these critics estimation might have made some sense, especially when considering a number of the most heinously angry reviews were written by people who are both critics and film press. I might not expect a critic to attempt to get a comment for something like this, but someone who's engaging in some variety of journalism probably should (criticism and journalism being different creatures which serve different functions). Not to mention that it would just be the civil thing to do when you're intimating someone is a traitor to their sex by making the exact kind of individual career choice the feminist movement fought for them to have in the first place.


There's a very cool article which addresses some of the reviews and coverage of the film over at Geekscape. 

And Diablo Cody, probably the hottest young female writer, just tweeted, "S. Punch was my first Zach Snyder film; maybe I was impressed b/c Snyder-ian trademarks were new to me? Either way, I liked."

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