Sucker Punch: Lessons Learned

Sucker Punch is five kinds of awesome mixed with ten kinds of terrible.

More on that in a moment.

I had a gift card for a local movie theater, and I was sitting around reading reviews of the movie, and I thought, well, fuck it. I know the wife doesn’t want to see it. I know I have two hours. And I know that if it’s good, I’ll want to have seen it in a theater, and if it’s bad, well, I didn’t pay shit for the ticket.

Two caveats:

First, if you saw and enjoyed Sucker Punch, don’t let me poo poo on your parade. Let your freaky geeky flag fly and shout your love to the world. Please don’t take anything I say as an insult.

Second, here there be spoilers. Light spoilers, very light, but spoilers just the same.

So, here we are.

The first five, ten minutes of the film are some of the most visually arresting five minutes I’ve seen in a movie in a long time, and they pack an emotional, erm, sucker punch. It’s hyper-stylized and very sad, and I don’t say it as an insult when I say it has the kind of kinetic power of some of David Fincher’s music videos (Janie’s Got A Gun, f’rex).

Unfortunately, the movie fails to really live up to the narrative oomph felt in the first act. The movie is about… 20 minutes of actual story, and a not-terrible story at that, crammed into a two-hour movie.

So, what fills the other two hours?

Masturbatory tech demos.

Zach Snyder is a fucking whup-ass director. The man makes visuals his squealing piggy. His work, as they say, has a real pretty mouth. The action scenes are cogent, too. They’re clear. I know what’s happening. They are elegantly choreographed and the effects will kick your teeth in.

The issue is, the action sequences mean nothing in terms of the narrative. No, really. They’re pit-stops. Outright fantasies. The film has in effect three layers of “reality,” ala Inception — first layer is the real world asylum, second layer is the fantasy brothel that stands in for the asylum, and the third layer are the various rabbit holes of action. (It’s the best I can put it, sorry.) The first layer is one we see very, very little of. The second is the setpiece of the movie so it is more or less our “baseline.” The third layer…

Well, that’s where we get into troubled water. All the awesome shit you see in the commercial takes place in this third layer. Hyper-psycho action sequences painted in the ejaculations of geeks everywhere. But what happens in these layers has no bearing on the first or second layer. None. It’s just… hot teen girls kicking ass for ten minutes. Doesn’t matter if they get hurt (they don’t). Doesn’t make a lick of difference if they achieve their goal (and we’re given no reason to believe they cannot achieve their goals because they are a stone’s throw from immortal). There’s not even a real strong metaphorical connection.

The action sequences, of which there are several, are without context, without meaning, and entirely without stakes. We learn nothing about the characters. We gain nothing in the story.

This makes these the most boring action sequences you have perhaps ever seen.

No, really. I found my mind wandering to grocery lists. Not kidding. Every once in a while I’d perk back up and nod toward some cool move — “Oh, that was neat” — before checking back out again.

What exists beyond these action sequences is where the movie lives, and it’s not a bad movie. It is, at times, kind of awesome. Plus: Carla Gugino and Jena Malone! Mmm.

But again, we’re talking 20, maybe 30 minutes of a two-hour flick.

Ultimately, that makes this a hot mess and something of a big disappointment, but since I was expecting it to be kind of awful, it actually came out somewhere in the “mmm, okay?” department.

Even still, I don’t like to outright pan a film if I can’t learn lessons from it. As a storyteller, you can learn as much from problem stories as you can from the best stories. Sometimes more.

So, three quick things I took away:

First: the school of cool has to stop. Just because something is awesome does not excuse its existence in the story. This movie offers a thousand darlings that should’ve been killed. It’s like Snyder had some sort of epileptic fit where he swallowed his tongue and had a fantasy involving every fanboy trope known to man: steampunk clockwork nazi zombies mecha samurai katana handgun gatling gun dragons orcs sailor moon tiny skirts hot girls robots sci-fi fantasy horror zeppelins hookers jon hamm. At first appraisal, that sounds super-cool. In reality, it is a dude painting with an uncontrolled hand.

Second: we need to know the stakes. Stakes are incredibly important in storytelling. The audience needs to know, If X happens, Y will not. Or, if X doesn’t happen, Y will fuck some shit up. We have to see potential consequence. We require want, need, fear, and the actions born of that. The action sequences that make up the bulk of the movie have no stakes. None. And that makes them very dull, indeed.

Third: context matters. In novel writing, you hear advice that says to start with a bang, like a movie. That’s hard to pull off, and here’s why: for an action scene to work, it has to be more than just action. It has to have context. We have to know our characters. We have to have, like above, stakes. We need some thread, some throughline, to carry us through and give the action meaning.

Is it a bad movie? No, probably not. Snyder can really direct and, when he has material to direct, it’s incredible. Here, though, there’s just not a lot of there there, as the saying goes. It’s a bit too hollow, a bit too shallow, which ultimately starts to drain it of its fun. So much so it just gets tireless.

Though, again, your mileage may vary.

29 comments

  • Kind of what I was expecting. Big ol’ fangasm.

    But if it’s as visually stunning as all that I may want to see it in the theater. Or maybe not. I’m surprisingly ambivalent about the film.

    SUPER on the other hand…

    • @Stephen –

      The fangasm is fine, really. I just wish he did more with it. The plot has layers, but ironically, the story has none. Er, if that makes sense?

      I don’t know that seeing it in the theater was altogether critical. Actually, I don’t know that seeing it at all is really critical. Scott Pilgrim, for all its flaws, is very strongly *about* something and brings its own distinct vision to the table. This mostly brings the visions of a hundred other people to the table and then pukes them up on your TV tray. Which I guess is fine? I dunno.

      – c.

  • So my twitter review based on the preview alone (looks like one of those movies where they hired a mess of programmers instead of a screenwriter) was spot on? Another lesson learned. If you can accurately review a movie based solely on a preview, there’s something wrong with the movie.

    • @Dan:

      Almost. Again, there’s a real story in there — and a fairly compelling one. It’s just buried beneath a lot of cheap fireworks.

      The real shame of it is, I can see ways that it all could’ve been brought together — some thick thread to tie it all together, allowing the third layer of craziness to kind of affect (and infect) the first two layers would be stellar. It just doesn’t go far enough in the story department and ends up gutted.

      But so much of the movie is about those geeky tech demos.

      – c.

  • I used to think any film with Carla Gugino was worth watching.

    Then WATCHMEN happened.

    Then I tried to pick myself up out of the sump by watching RIGHTEOUS KILL.

    Then my dreams died.

    • Not a fan of WATCHMEN, @Stringer?

      I didn’t see RIGHTEOUS KILL.

      And no matter how bad a movie is, if it has Carla Gugino in it, I will keep a tiny place in my heart for it.

      I think she’s a great actress. And oh so pretty.

      – c.

  • I’m a ninja, and even I want to see more than great karate moves in an action flick. I’m outlining one right now that’s kicking my ass. But I’m taking your review to heart as I do it. No way do I want you to piss on my episode when it airs ;) T

    here’s so much more to successful action films than just fireworks. But it’s a lot easier to write lazy than to brainstorm conflict and emotion and get it on the page. Damn, why do we do this for a living again? :)

  • It sounds like a game of d&d where the dm moves the players from fight to fight without giving any story in between. This is a depressing start to the summer blockbuster season.

  • All and this time, I just wanted to watch it because of the aesthetics – and I was right!

    Most films today are very overrated (I can’t blame the producers, though. It pays bills!). But then again, there are several hot girls included so…

    I’m still going to watch it, though. I’m just not sure if it’s going to be worth the theater tickets.

    • Heh.

      I can see your points, re: WATCHMEN. I generally liked it (though perhaps not loved it), but I think your point that comic books are not storyboards for films is spot on.

      – c.

  • In novel writing, you hear advice that says to start with a bang, like a movie. That’s hard to pull off, and here’s why: for an action scene to work, it has to be more than just action. It has to have context.

    I used to write like this. Every story I wrote sucked after the first couple pages. I’ve stopped writing like this. My stories now wait until much later to suck. ;)

    So, a thousand times yes!

    - Ryan

  • You know, this is going to sound weird, but it looked too epic and visually masturbatory for it to actually BE that good. I’ve gotten pretty cynical when it comes to movie trailers. If I can’t discern what the fuck the storyline is somewhere in the trailer, I wait to just order it off Netflix.

    Movies are EXPENSIVE these days, man. I’d rather wait and be pleasantly surprised by a movie being awesome, than spend days feeling remorseful at just having wasted a crap-ton of money.

  • @Stringer, @Chuck

    I didn’t much care for The Watchmen for pretty much the same reasons. I didn’t hate it, but I felt it suffered by trying to do such a close recreation of the comic. Comics aren’t movies and they don’t really translate even if they look like they should.

    As to Carla Gugino I think she was wasted in the role. I think she was the right person for the character, but the role is so thin there was nothing for her to do. Now if she was 20 years younger she would have nailed the younger Silk Specter.

    And I’ll pretty much watch her in anything. Hell, I even liked Spy Kids.

    Something I’ve been thinking re: Suckerpunch is that with the unfortunate box office returns on Scott Pilgrim I’ve started lumping all geek-centric movies, as opposed to broader appeal movies, in the same general corral, assuming that they’ll do badly. And that does them a disservice.

    Partly because it assumes that a geek-centric film doesn’t have broader appeal. I really have no idea if Suckerpunch is going to do badly. On the one hand I hope it doesn’t, as I want to see flashy, geek movies do well. On the other hand, I don’t ever want to see bad story-telling do well.

  • HUGE SPOILERS DON’T READ IF YOU DON’T WANT SPOILERS

    SPOILERS

    SPOILERS

    I am coming to the realization that perhaps some guys didn’t really ‘get’ Sucker Punch because, well, they’re guys.

    If you’re a girl, you do what Babydoll does a lot in your life. Not to her degree, obviously, but if you’ve had an inkling of trauma, you know how to /go there/ and remove yourself almost as if it was reflex. It was easy as breathing for me to imagine what babydoll was doing, why she was doing it, and to insert the X and Y that you were searching for. It was simple as pie for me to fill in those dots. Sometimes you don’t even need trauma – just a real active imagination. My daughter loved the movie – but then, she’s a roleplayer and writer like nobody’s business. She doesn’t even know who she is if she isn’t concocting a story or character. I can attest she’s not had the kind of childhood traumas I experienced. So perhaps I’m completely off base.

    I just think women can get into that business of being someone else a lot easier than guys.

    I think also perhaps, he asked that of his viewers and sometimes, just… sometimes, viewers get a little punchy when asked to connect some dots. I’m just saying.

    I understood why they were nigh invincible. It was her imagination. That’s really not hard to grasp? There /was/ danger. The incoming lobotomy. A fucking lobotomy. That’s some dire shit coming down the pike at you in 5 days. I felt like it was a race to get the items.

    I dunno, it just made sense to me. Who cares what the trappings of her kick-ass dreams were? They were beautiful and cool, who cares? I LOVED the costumes and make up and how beautiful they all were. It was supposed to be fantasy.

    That kind of fantasy is in itself a kind of armor, dig?

    But really anyone expecting some deep introspective awesome of deepness just really… well. You were looking in the wrong place.

    If you go in knowing what you’re looking for, you can’t be disappointed.

    • @Jen:

      I gotta tell you, your comment there smacks of condescension. Boys can have imagination, and boys can use imagination to escape trauma.

      I don’t assume there’s anything wrong with anybody who liked it, so don’t assume there’s something wrong or different about those who didn’t.

      And your point about the dangers in her imagination isn’t one I grok. The danger in the dreams had no effect on the danger in the brothel-reality. None. In fact, despite all the guns and monsters, the third-layer of imagination had no danger at all. None of that affected the lobotomy. None of what happened in the deepest imagination changed anything in terms of the High Roller or the time in which he was arriving.

      If you liked SUCKER PUNCH, good for you. I am genuinely happy you did. But my problems with the film weren’t because I was a guy. I’ve seen a lot of ladies on Twitter who did not enjoy one whit of the film.

      – c.

  • Like you said, you learn a shit load more from failure than you do from success. A shit load. Having seen the trailer, don’t think I’ll be going anywhere near it. Just doesn’t float my particular pedalo.

  • The first movie where I felt screwed-over: Jacob’s Ladder (1990). It’s intriguing until you get to the end and SPOILER ALERT find out none of the movie happened, except briefly, in the guy’s head during an acid trip or something.

    Disappointment is a powerful emotion. I’m glad to know what Sucker Punch is all about so I can adjust my expectations for if/when I see it.

    It is odd, that I can’t get a single page or paragraph by my critics without it being torn apart for any lack of Narrative Drive, and yet … these movies get made. Huh.

  • That’s what I love about this site. Even with a review for a movie that’s clearly eye-candy, there’s still a lively, intelligent and respectful debate about it. Even with all the poor reviews, I’m still probably going to go see it though. Zach Snyder’s one of those directors who, even when their movies come up short (IMHO Watchmen), still manage to entertaining in a unique and brilliant way.
    Here’s to beautiful failures.

  • Oh excellent points on storytelling, there’s any number of books that fail miserably at this.

    I’m glad I didn’t waste my money on Sucker Punch, the first time I saw the trailer I thought “Oh godz, its I Am the Cheese mixed with The Matrix, Chthulu help us.” You’ve done nothing to convince me I was wrong.

    • @Mike:

      Well, to be clear, my review isn’t meant to put anybody off — folks will hopefully form their own opinion and not trust me to be an arbiter of their tastes, but yeah, if it looks like that to you, you’re probably going to feel like I did about it.

      It just doesn’t come together for me. More I think about it, the more I wonder how it went so swiftly off the rails. Because there’s a good movie in there. I can smell it. It just never came out to play.

      – c.

  • I was a little skeptical with the previews. It looked cool…but I’ve seen how some movies fail to live up to that first impression. I have a big imagination but I like a strong story in my movie or novel. I want stakes, I want layers, I want character transformation!

  • I felt much the same way about Kevin Smith’s “Red State,” to be honest. Another project where the writer and director and producer are the same guy, and another project where some more liberal editing and some darling murder would have made a much better movie.

Speak Your Mind, Word-Nerds