Archive for August, 2011

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Escaping Into Explosions: A Thematic Analysis of Sucker Punch

08/26/2011

Zack Snyder has never been one for subtlety.  Though he was applauded for its absence in 300, he was criticized for a hyper-violent and over-sexualized interpretation of Alan Moore’s classic graphic novel Watchmen.  But by far his most divisive film is Sucker Punch.  Snyder’s self-proclaimed “Holy Grail of Nerd Movies” is certainly unlike any other film you’ll ever see.  It has depth, certainly, but it also has NO subtlety, leading many to consider it pretentiously exploitative, as if it is trying to justify its exploitation with the vague theme of female empowerment.

And in the opinion of this author, that criticism is dismissive at best.  Make no mistake, Sucker Punch is not for everyone.  Its audience is very specific.  Not even all nerds can get into it.  Its structure is weird.  The music is cartoonishly literal.  The dialog leaves no room for subtext.  But you know what?  I love this movie.

Its action scenes have been criticized for having no “real world stakes.”  As in, the impending threat in the main character’s (Baby Doll’s) world is that she is going to be lobotomized, but in the fantasies she faces off against dragons, trains, and clockwork men.  Thus, as the criticism goes, her accomplishments in the escapist fantasies are in fact anti-accomplishments.  Nothing is achieved.  Nothing is learned.  In any traditional story this would be a major flaw.  But Sucker Punch is not a traditional story. It is a thematic commentary on escapism and an explosive meditation on why we even go to movies like this in the first place.

The highest level of reality in the film (that of the asylum) has no more bearing on the audience’s reality than the genre-blending fantasies have on Baby Doll’s.  We all choose to substitute our stakes with those of high-concept fantasy worlds.  Take a beloved story like The Lord of the Rings.  The stakes in that story are very high – all of Middle Earth could be overtaken by the dark lord Sauron.  And yet, we find these stakes to be more comforting and relaxing than our real-world problems – problems which are comparatively much smaller.

The falseness of fantasy is part of its appeal.  It allows us to experience our messy emotional selves in a context where being emotionally manipulated is considered a good thing.  Then we walk away from the theater and back into our real environment; the same, but different.  We’ve matured with our characters, even if such maturation is exclusively psychological.  We relish the opportunity to explore ourselves emotionally, to redefine our lives in a new and safer context where good can triumph over evil.  In the film, Baby Doll does just that.  Her life has become a mess.  At first, she redefines her surroundings – the asylum becomes a brothel, rape becomes a dance.  But there comes a point where this fantasy is too close to reality, so she escapes even further into a world that bends itself to her needs.  Gravity?  Psh!  If we can’t climb we’ll jump, and if that doesn’t work, we’ll fly.

This is where the real commentary starts.  This deep layer of fantasy features the girls triumphing over impossible odds.  They’re the best in the world.  Nothing can keep them down.  This represents one of the most common escapist fantasies – victory.  But there comes an inevitable point where something so tragic, so jarring happens that the escapism fails.  I won’t spoil it here, but what we see happen toward the end of the second act forces Baby Doll to be self-conscious about her escapism, when faced with pain, she actively chooses to return to the fantasy.  But now the escapism is back a step, it simply redefines.  It repurposes a tragedy to be something of a different kind of failure.  What was a simple failure to steal a knife becomes the failure to disarm a nuclear explosion.  Perhaps that extremist failure is more comfortable to watch than the more personal tragedy.

There’s lots of talk in this film about Baby Doll’s virginity.  She’s supposed to lose it to the High Roller, the fantasy version of the lobotomist.  The idea of course is that the moment he inserts a needle into her brain is symbolized by sexual intercourse.  There is also much reference to the lie of entertainment.  The opening shot is of curtains being drawn (not unlike Moulin Rouge!), and the first layer of fantasy is filled with song and dance, countered by backstage scenes of sadness and pain.  The multitude of mirrors remind us of the different sides of every person, and maybe produces the anxiety of being watched from every angle.  And at the end of the film we get a glimpse of Paradise – the final escape.  This is what everyone in the film has been after since the beginning; and arguably, everyone in the real world too.

As mentioned earlier, there is depth here.  But its screaming at you.  Depth without subtlety can be a major turn-off for some.  All the symbols in the world won’t mean much to an audience that doesn’t care for your story.  But at the very least, I wish that critics had more respect for the incredibly unique work of art that this film is.  Like Edward Scissorhands for Burton or The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly for Leone, no one else could have made this film the way Snyder has made it.  It is deeply personal and in some ways completely successful.  Its themes of escapism will certainly strike a cord with anyone interested in the idea of entertainment as public service.

For my case, these escapist action flicks are precisely the types of movies that I want to make some day.  And Sucker Punch is a very clear description as to why.

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