I should have listened. For the past few weeks, everyone who’s caught a glimpse of Zack Snyder’s much-anticipated would-be magnum opus “Sucker Punch” has been screaming from the rooftops about how indescribably horrible it is, but here’s the thing: I didn’t think it was logistically possible for a filmmaker of Snyder’s caliber to release a truly bad movie -- let alone one that warranted the mounting calls for him to be drawn and quartered for his crimes against cinema. I assumed they were a bunch a fuddy-duds who lacked the hipness to share in Snyder’s singular vision. So despite all the wailing and gnashing of teeth, the Snyder fanboy boy whispered into my ear, “Come and see.” And I saw.
★ (out of four)
2011, Dir. Zack Snyder, U.S., PG-13
“Sucker Punch” is not just a “bad movie.” We see bad movies every week, and we forget about them and move on. “Sucker Punch,” on the other hand, will live on in infamy long after you and I are dead. Beyond just wasting your time and boring you out of your skull, this is a film of such mind-bending awfulness that it could conceivably change how you approach the very art of filmmaking. It is bad on a very fundamental, very rare and almost theoretical level. I cannot recall the last time a film actually made me feel as though I had just been violated.
This level of sheer badness is particularly perplexing when you consider that the movie was written and directed by Zack Snyder, the pop-art wizard behind “Dawn of the Dead” (hands-down the greatest zombie flick ever made, and the best horror remake), “Watchmen” (which competes against “The Dark Knight” for the title of Best. Superhero movie. Ever.) and “300” (which, despite an over-reliance on slow-motion, was a top-quality piece of film-geek gore-porn). In light of this, we must consider the possibility that “Sucker Punch” is an inarguable refutation of the long-standing auteur theory.
It is never out of the question for even the greatest of filmmakers to make bad movies — even Scorsese had his “New York, New York.” But never before have I seen a visionary film artist make such a baffling misstep. “Sucker Punch” displays contempt for the art of storytelling at every turn, and had this been Snyder’s first film as a director, I would say that this person should never again be allowed in the same hemisphere as a movie camera. Or a word processor, for that matter.
The screenplay (which Snyder co-wrote, giving him almost complete creative control over the project) is a disaster of Biblical proportions, and will one day be used in textbooks as a prime example of how not to craft a script. It tells the story of Babydoll (Emily Browning), a young girl who is left to protect her little sister after their mother dies and they are left in the care of their abusive step-father. When he discovers that the two girls are to inherit their mother’s estate, he flies into a rage and attempts to rape the sister. Trying to protect her, Babydoll grabs a gun and fires, accidentally killing her sister. The step-father has her committed to an insane asylum, where she is lobotomized.
All of this occurs within the first five minutes of the film, which is as jarring and truncated as the similarly stylized opening of “Watchmen” was effortlessly cool. The music-video stylists are abandoned just before the metal spike enters Babydoll’s brain, and we are transported to a fantasy world in which the mental asylum and its inhabitants are recast as hookers in a brothel. Babydoll (who, it has been revealed, is actually 20) is now set to be sold to a high roller, and she has five days to team up with her fellow sex slaves and plan their collective exodus.
They need to collect several items to aid in their escape, and every time they go to retrieve one of these items (a map on the boss’ wall, a lighter from a customer’s pocket, a knife from the kitchen, etc.), the film switches again to high-energy action sequences involving everything from giant robot samurai and fire-breathing dragons to gas-mask-wearing German soldiers who bleed steam. Oh, and did I mention that they’re able to retrieve these items because Babydoll can literally hypnotize men with her dancing?
In case you haven’t picked up on this yet, “Sucker Punch” is completely incoherent in its storytelling techniques. It attempts an “Inception”-style multi-level narrative, but where Christopher Nolan’s film always adhered to a clear set of rules, Snyder’s work is an exercise in pure, unbridled chaos. Snyder is able to maintain kinetic coherence in all the action scenes, and I give him half-star credit for that. But everything else is a confused jumble of preteen-pop-culture excess and rape fantasies, and I’m hard-pressed to say absolutely anything positive about the work as a whole, because what is there to say about a film so totally lost in its own indulgences? It’s in color, I guess?
Snyder is fortunate to have signed on to direct the “Superman” reboot before “Sucker Punch” was unveiled, because this is the kind of thing that could, under different circumstances, easily end a career. I was willing to forgive him for the disappointing “Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga’Hoole,” as that was just a disposable children’s film. But this is Snyder unleashed, given complete control to deliver his uncompromised vision. He has failed on an historic level, casting into doubt the talents of a filmmaker I had pegged as one of the new mavericks.
Jason Wallis is a News-Sentinel copy editor. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.