Review: The monsters of Sucker Punch

This stylized, dark, Baumsian fantasy is better than I expected. Although, I have to admit, I wasn’t expecting much from Sucker Punch, which hit theatres this weekend.

Going in, I was envisioning a trite tale of disconnected, unthematic cruft, used to tie together unrelated badass action sequences filled with gratuitous cheesecake. To an extent, I was correct, but the film did manage to surprise me with its quality and depth.

The story is of a young girl, wronged, mistreated, framed, and placed into a mental hospital, but this is only our frame, which delivers itself stylistically, and with a few string-tugs which border on the melodramatic.

The tale moves quickly to the symbolic inner-frame however, as the girl’s struggle within herself is represented with another tale.

She finds herself the new girl in a brothel/prison, where she, like Baum’s Dorothy, quickly meets four friends who represent aspects of herself, whom she must move in concert with to escape the dreamland. The intense, fantastic action sequences are representations of each aspect of the girls’ plan to escape the brothel.

While the gratuitous cheesecake is certainly present, the frames worked well for me, and the story moved briskly with clear parallels throughout. The audience is frequently reminded of the story-within-a-story nature, and the pieces fit together fluidly, with transparent symbolism, and an unpretentiousness which is a bit refreshing. When the girls need to find a lighter, for example, their quest in the fantasy world is to retrieve the fire-making crystals from the neck of a dragon. I daresay some critics will call these connections too clear, requiring too little effort to make, but I think that’s a fine line which hasn’t been crossed here.

The fantasy sequences are entertaining, and well-wrought; each one being a small story of its own, and surprisingly moving. More surprising, however, is the nature of the enemies these girls must fight. Of all the creatures they kill, none of them are men. The enemies they defeat are demons, orcs, zombie Nazis, robots, and other creatures, but never are they truly men. This kind of sensibility was the last thing I expected from this movie. The film could very easily have been about slaughtering as many men as possible to avenge the wrongs of the abusers, and it’s good to see that this temptation was overcome.

The visual effects within these sequences are as astonishing as any modern film, and the badass monster fighting manages to avoid the stereotypical campiness that one might expect from the previews and posters.

The film does have some narrative flaws: The initial antagonist, for one thing, disappears from the plot somewhat confusingly, and the resolution of the ultimate conflict, while somewhat dimly foreshadowed, may leave some in the audience scratching their heads. The film’s message and themes of hope, freedom, and sacrifice, however, do not suffer from these flaws in a terminal way.

The film as a whole is a moving piece of cinema, carved from unexpected slabs of material usually reserved for baser flicks. If you only go to see the scantily clad fighting girls, you won’t be disappointed, but you might find yourself staggered, as I was, by how much else the film is capable of evoking from you.