Tuesday, 21 May 2013

Sucker Punch

Zach Snyder’s 2011 film Sucker Punch is that amazingly rare movie which dares to confront one of the great unspoken truths about Hollywood movie-going: the sheer degree to which we often hate the hero-protagonists we’re presented with. Even in an agreeably well-done Hollywood spectacle piece, once you see your hero dashing unscathed through one hail of gunfire after another, or winning yet another six-on-one meelee with nary a scratch, it becomes a natural point of human perversity to start wanting to see those outcomes reversed. And, given the lamentably high number of Hollywood movies that give us hero-protagonists who are lunkheaded non-entities or outright hateful assholes – playing an unfairly rigged game against villains who are often far more sensible and/or sympathetic – this wish to see them snuffed out gains immeasurably more strength.

The number of Hollywood movies that recognize and play to this desire, however, is surprisingly slight – and the number that can actually pull it off once set upon this course is even leaner still. A case in point is Joe Dante’s film Small Soldiers (1998), an unofficial satire on Toy Story which gives us some standard-issue canon-fodder monsters – the “Gorgonites” – to identify with, against the most insufferable set of G.I. Joe-style toy soldiers ever. The premise is brilliantly audacious, but Dante bungles the execution inexcusably with his apparent belief that he needs to win his audience’s sympathies over to the Gorgonites. He thus wastes endless amounts of narrative time on explanations and pathos, when in reality we were with him from the start, and impatient for the Gorgonites to start kicking some soldier ass.

With Sucker Punch, Snyder transcends all this to a degree that astonished me the first time I saw it. The first and most crucial reason for this is the brilliant Decadence of its gender politics. The film opens with a creepy-looking man attempting to molest his stepdaughters after their mother has passed away. Displaying spirit and spunk, our heroine (played by Emily Browning from A Serious of Unfortunate Events) locks herself in a room with a window she can climb out of, and them re-enters the house to threaten him with his own gun, only for him to disarm her and have her locked away in an asylum, where she escapes into a fantasy world which gives her strength. Thus far, the film probably sounds like an even worse version of Peter Jackson’s The Lovely Bones, but whereas that film seemingly had no self-consciousness about what it was doing, Sucker Punch is only using this narrative set-up in order to get us into the fantasy world, which offers us a nice, Decadent rejoinder to Jackson’s creepy ideas about “innocence.”

Unlike Jackson’s clichéd “Heaven,” Browning’s heroine’s fantasy world takes us to an upscale private bordello peopled with gorgeous teenage girls – each one of whom is the private moll to some vice-ridden local plutocrat – and run by a pimp named Blue, played by Oscar Isaac in an even bitchier mode than as King Richard in Robin Hood. In my last post I complained about the misandry that seems to pervade so much of American animated filmmaking, presumably out of some inane sense that the masculine ideals of self-wilfulness and decisive action are not “wholesome” ones to inculcate children with. Sucker Punch is just as misandrist as your average 90s animated film, but from a diametrically opposed position. Here, all the male characters seem to have passed through masculinity and come out the other side – into realms of sleaziness, calculation, gluttony, desiccation, etc. in which there’s no room left for conventional manhood. As a result, those roles fall to the girls.

In addition to our heroine – now nicknamed “Babydoll” – the movie introduces us to four of the girls from the brothel, of whom only two take on real narrative importance: the flighty “Rocket,” who casually explains that “the club’s a front for his business – guns, gambling, medications, special favours”; and her commanding older sister “Sweetpea,” who as the star of the place’s strip show, demands “can I have something a little more commercial here?” -- a deliciously ironic line to be heard in a Hollywood spectacle like this. The other two are “Amber,” the Asian girl vaguely coded as the good-hearted one who feels sorry for waifs; and “Blondie,” the sardonic brunette who tells Amber that “no one felt sorry for you” when she arrived. All of them see Babydoll as too simperingly innocent to develop an arousing dance routine like she’s supposed to, but she then surprises them all by doing a brilliant one heavy on the gyrating and moaning.

We never get to see it, however, because whenever she starts doing it, the film cuts away to the digital mega-spectacle of one of four vast fantasy worlds, and it's here that Sucker Punch’s real interest begins. The first of these sequences has Babydoll nervously entering a dojo, wherein she is set upon by three giant samurai. They not only have naginata, the blades of which are the length of her entire body, but they also blast away at her with gigantic gattling guns. In a sequence of dazzling video-game-style aesthetics, Babydoll suddenly manifests limitless agility, speed, and resilience, and intuitively uses a katana and a handgun to hit each of the colossi at their one weak point. They collapse and immolate into pure white light. Coming 22 minutes into the film, it’s a bafflingly unexpected development, and leaves one with the sense that things can go anywhere henceforth.

The setting of the second fantasy sequence is modelled on a World War I battlefield, but pumped up to the outlandish scale and intensity of a Star Wars battle. The sky is filled with more biplanes and zeppelins than were probably deployed along the entire Western Front at any one time, and the location has been adjusted so that Chartres cathedral happens to be right in the line of fire – the trenches running right up to the front steps, and its famous flying buttresses collapsing beneath the shockwaves of all the exploding shells. The effect of seeing our five heroines strutting through this setting in slow-motion – dressed in fetishistic leather and sluttish makeup, as opposed to the battered khaki-clad troops on either side of them – is one of the film’s most Decadent moments: the complete divorce from any sense of human commonality on the characters’ part, and any sense of historical restraint on Snyder’s.

The ensuing action sequence is everything one would expect from Hollywood at its best – intense choreography, hyperkinetic editing, and brilliantly maintained suspense. This last is particularly interesting, given that one knows for a fact that none of the heroines are going to get it, just as one knows equally well that none of the German troops have a chance. Hence, one supposes, all of the moments when one of the girls seems momentarily overmatched, pinned down, surrounded, or otherwise threatened, are just formal exercises – there do demonstrate how impressively they can be done, rather than for the sake of any narrative uncertainty about their upshot. We’re told, moreover, that the German soldiers the girls are facing are in fact a kind of steampunk stormtrooper – corpseswhich have been made to walk again through steam power and precision gear-works. And it’s here that the film’s most intriguing aspect rears its head. Many Hollywood spectacles have a deeply problematic politics of empathy, to put it mildly. We’re totally inured to seeing hundreds of  people die horrifyingly, provided they’re anonymous enough, but routinely invited to be terrified and anguished if one hair on the hero’s best friend’s head is touched. And don’t even get one started on the trope of the cute child or dog… Sucker Punch, with the samurai automata and now these steam-troopers, is doing something different. The risk of any loss of life is now precisely zero on both sides, so empathy or concern of any sort doesn’t even enter into the equation. This, in fact, to be the film’s keynote henceforth.

The third sequence takes up the politics of empathy again, but now goes to a very different place with them. This sequence hinges on our three main heroines being dropped from a World War II bomber into the courtyard of a besieged castle, and having to descend into the bowels of the place to slit a baby dragon’s throat, in order to extract the two fire-crystals inside. All goes well, until they are surprised by the baby’s mother, who is understandably enraged. Chasing them, she emerges from the castle blasting fire, causing total mayhem among the besieging forces, before taking flight to chase the girls’ drop plane – piloted by the two subsidiary heroines “Amber” and “Blondie.”

Seeing Blondie fire one of the plane’s machine guns at the dragon, crying “Take that you ugly mother!” seems like exactly the sort of hateful moment one would expect from one of the worse kind of Hollywood designated-heroes. The previous business with the baby dragon was an appallingly callous moment on the heroines’ part, and one’s sympathy is now frankly with the dragon – a reading one doesn’t quite expect to see borne out by the movie. Except that, a moment later, Blondie exclaims that she’s lost the dragon behind one of the castle’s towers – only for it to suddenly emerge and chomp down on the plane’s gun-turret tail, sending it spiralling away downward. The sequence still obligatorily ends with Babydoll skewering the dragon in the head with her katana, but with that one chomp, one suddenly has the sense that Sucker Punch may yet be going somewhere that will surprise you.

This is then borne out in the fourth fantasy sequence. This one takes us into the realm of science fiction. We find ourselves on a terraformed Titan, beneath a yellowy-beige sky, above which Saturn and its glorious rings almost entirely fill the horizon. We’re above a futuristic bullet train, which has been rigged by terrorists with a bomb, set to explode when the train reaches the futuristic megalopolis on the horizon. The girls must fight their way through the innumerable robot guards stationed throughout the train in order to deactivate and extract the bomb. After the opening rounds of the melee play out Matrix-style – with the girls’ bullets and blades shredding the robots in slow-motion – however, the film cuts back to its second level of reality, in the brothel, where the escape plan goes wrong and Rocket gets stabbed. Cutting back into the fantasy sequence, the tide abruptly turns, and Babydoll is sent sprawling into some cargo crates in equally tortuous detail. Sweetpea’s shotgun is smashed out of her hands similarly emphatically, and Rocket takes an incapacitating punch to the face in a positively fetishistic slo-mo close-up. In short order, one of the fallen robots resurges long enough to reactivate the bomb, and their mission ends in failure, with Rocket trapped on the train to be blown to atoms along with the city (Snyder paying homage to his own work in Watchmen). The drama of invincibility has mutated into that of martyrdom in only a few moments.

After this, the film returns to the brothel-reality, with Blue shooting Amber and Blondie in the head, and Babydoll and Sweetpea having to make a desperate break for it on their own. And it’s the one huge, defining disappointment of Sucker Punch that this climax plays out wholly in the brothel-reality rather than in a fifth fantasy sequence that brings the remaining girls to total apocalypse. The film’s ultimate conclusion is so unexpected that it deserves a mega-spectacle analogue like what we’ve seen so far: it turns out to be Sweetpea that gets out and Babydoll that stays behind to sacrifice herself. This plays out via a rapid montage through three different layers of reality, in the course of which she has inflicted upon herself two of the same fates – being shot in the head point-blank, and having her brain skewered – which she’s dealt out so cavalierly throughout the preceding sequences. There’s a satisfaction to this that, as I said, one is very rarely afforded in Hollywood movies. In most, when you are presented with a meek, blushing, young heroine who insists that we must all work together to escape from the clutches of our nefarious captors; another young girl who believes in her right away; and an older girl who attempts to kibosh her idealism with phrases such as “too risky” and “what makes you so special?” then it’s a no-brainer to guess which two are going to survive until the end. The fact that Snyder has flouted that logic, even more than all the amazing digital fantasy spectacles on offer, is what makes Sucker Punch so amazingly revolutionary a film, and demonstrates once again that being mainstream entertainment is no excuse for infantilism.

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