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.