Every day, Watch This offers staff recommendations inspired by a new movie coming out that week. The release of M. Night Shyamalan's latest film, After Earth, has us thinking back on good movies from often-maligned directors.
Sucker Punch (2011)
Zack Snyder is hardly a critical favorite, but even by his standards, Sucker Punch took an uncommon beating. At Metacritic, it’s the only one of his five features with an overall negative score, and its 23 percent rating on Rotten Tomatoes is less than half that of Legend Of The Guardians: The Owls Of Ga’Hoole. Just let that sink in a moment.
For better or worse, Sucker Punch is a breed apart from Snyder’s other movies, including the forthcoming Man Of Steel. Unlike Dawn Of The Dead or 300 or Watchmen or that owls thing, it’s not based on a pre-existing property; the idea is Snyder’s, dating back from before he made his first feature. If ever a Zack Snyder joint could be called a personal film, this is the one.
For anyone raised on the auteur theory or any of its watered-down offshoots, “personal” is an unqualified good. But not everyone’s soul is worth exploring, and some relationships are better left casual. Does anyone want to know what lurks deep inside the recesses of Michael Bay’s heart, or want Justin Lin to abandon the Fast And The Furious franchise to explore his feelings about his father? Fortunately, Sucker Punch isn’t that kind of confessional. On the surface, it’s as big and loud—at least—as any of Snyder’s other movies. It’s full of arbitrary action sequences and action-figure fantasies, with the main twist being that the combatants are not the oiled-up Grindr dates of 300, but a group of nubile young women confined to an insane asylum. In one of the movie’s few concessions to reality, the Gothic madhouse where Babydoll (Emily Browning) is imprisoned after accidentally shooting her younger sister is concretely situated in Brattleboro, Vermont.
Structured like a video game, Sucker Punch presents Babydoll with a series of objectives she needs to complete to escape the asylum: key objects she acquires by distracting the orderlies with a seductive dance. But rather than showing Babydoll’s dances, the movie supplants them with a series of battles royales, each of which is a chaotic mash-up of several genres. There’s an aerial assault that’s like a cross between a World War II movie and the Helm’s Deep sequence from The Two Towers, a training sequence that lifts heavily from Terry Gilliam’s Brazil, and so on.
Critics slammed Snyder for pandering to the Comic-Con crowd, dressing his young adult heroines like schoolgirls while providing little in the way of genuine eroticism. But if Snyder’s career has proven anything, it’s that he knows how to pander to fanboys. Sucker Punch’s box-office failure is as good an indication as any that he was after something else. He may put Browning in stockings and a Catholic-school skirt, but he actually goes to great lengths not to sexualize her, going so far as to omit any hint of her titillating dances. The movie explicitly substitutes violence for sex, one fantasy for another.
That’s not to say that Sucker Punch is a lost classic, exactly, but that there’s more going on beneath its gaudy surface than those who sneered at its initial release bothered to note. Even Guy Maddin, a connoisseur of the excessive and overwrought, sounded a note of admiration for it. It may not be Snyder’s best movie, but it’s the only one that qualifies as art.
Availability: Theatrical and extended cuts on DVD and Blu-ray, rental and purchase from the major digital providers, and disc delivery from Netflix.