Sucker Punch

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This is the dark side of disposable pop culture. “Sucker Punch,” a female-driven action drama set in a dreamworld, feels like it was based on a graphic novel based on a video game based on a wet dream based on “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” — a description that, under different circumstances, might be an endorsement. But this movie is interminably hollow and dispassionate. It’s mindless — and not in the good way (i.e., fun and frivolous) but in the bad way (i.e., tedious and repetitive).

Yeah, it feels like a video game. Unfortunately, the video game it feels like is Pong.

This is the work of Zack Snyder, the visually minded director of “Dawn of the Dead,” “300,” “Watchmen,” and “The Owls of Ga’Hoole,” movies that demonstrated (some more than others) how slickly entertaining a stylish, well-made chunk of nonsense can be. Perhaps it is significant that each of those films was based on preexisting material. “Sucker Punch” is all Snyder, from the story to the dialogue (he shares screenplay credit with Steve Shibuya) to the execution, and it’s remarkably lifeless.

In what appears to be the 1950s or so, a teenage girl called Baby Doll (Emily Browning) is put in a mental institution by her evil stepfather (Gerard Plunkett), who’s scheming to get the girl’s inheritance. Baby Doll and her fellow inmates — who are all hot chicks; the nuthouse has a strict hot-chicks-only policy — cope with their dreary surroundings by imagining that they live not in a prison-like institution but in a Moulin Rouge-like cabaret. The girls’ psychiatrist, Vera Gorski (Carla Gugino), is re-imagined as their choreographer. The cruel orderly who runs the hospital, named Blue (Oscar Isaac), is the pencil-mustached owner of the club. And the doctor (Jon Hamm) who will arrive in five days’ time to perform Baby Doll’s lobotomy? Why, that’s a “high roller” who’s going to watch Baby Doll dance and then take her virginity! It’s all very “Muppet Babies.”

So Baby Doll has five days to escape from the unescapable Lennox House for the Mentally Insane, assisted by her fellow troubled teens: Rocket (Jena Malone), her sister Sweet Pea (Abbie Cornish), non-blonde Blondie (Vanessa Hudgens), and Amber (Jamie Chung). (Personalities? Eh, they’re all more or less interchangeable.) Planning the escape means getting things like a map of the facility, a weapon, and a key, and each of those mini-missions is presented as a fantasy sequence — a fantasy in a fantasy, since they’re already pretending to live in a bordello. We see Baby Doll and the gang fighting dragons in a gloomy castle, but what’s really happening is Baby Doll is dancing for a cabaret patron to distract him while Amber steals his cigarette lighter … but the cabaret patron is actually just an orderly. I guess Amber really is picking his pocket, but I don’t know what the real-world equivalent of Baby Doll’s “dancing” is. Maybe she’s just standing there staring at him? Heck, maybe she is dancing. It’s a mental institution, after all. People do weird things.

Much of this is confusing and trippy and weird, but that isn’t what’s wrong with the movie. Be as surreal and dreamlike and allegorical as you want to, Snyder. Knock yourself out. But sweet merciful Vonnegut, you’ve got to give us some characters, man! The action has to mean something — if not to us then at least to the people in the movie.

Snyder’s action sequences, for all their kicking and fighting and fanciful backgrounds and smooth imagery, are completely without impact. Since they take place entirely in Baby Doll’s imagination (or possibly an imagination that she and the other girls share?), there are no stakes. We never feel like the girls are in any real danger — it’s all in their minds, after all. The real danger for them is whatever’s happening in the mental institution, but they (and the movie) have fled that world.

If you’re wondering how a bunch of hot chicks in scanty clothing fighting steam-powered zombies and flying World War I planes and defusing bombs on speeding trains could possibly be boring, that’s how. You want to make all that stuff boring? Slap it up there on the screen without any context, like Snyder has done here.

One action sequence grabbed me. It was the very first scene of the film, between Baby Doll and her stepfather. Why did it grab me? Because it took place in a world that felt real. The characters’ physical movements had consequences. I didn’t know the people yet, but I had a sense of who was good and who was bad, who I sympathized with. The stakes — what each character wanted, how they were opposed to one another — were clear.

Those are the basic materials of any worthwhile action scene. After that opening sequence, every minute of “Sucker Punch” is missing all of them.

There’s been a lot of discussion about whether the film is feminist or anti-feminist, what its view of female sexuality is. Now that I’ve seen it, I can say with some confidence that I don’t care. The larger concern is that it’s monotonous, vapid, and empty. It doesn’t matter how much technical skill is evident in the production — and there’s plenty here — if the story, characters, and action don’t produce any sensation in the viewer. This must be what a lobotomy feels like.

D- (1 hr., 49 min.; PG-13, a little profanity, a lot of action violence, some sexual themes.)

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