Swing and Miss

Movie: Sucker Punch (2011).

From what little I’ve come across about this movie, I’ve gathered it’s a love it or hate it kind of experience. I admit I had a few love it moments during the course of my viewing, but in the end this movie failed to draw me in. It also confused me needlessly without the usual corresponding fascination that deliberately confusing films tend to strive for. I’m also very sorry, for I can never ignore a good pun: it’s a swing and miss for Sucker Punch.

The plot, though its presence can barely be felt for most of the movie (it tries to sucker punch you during the last five minutes to make up for this), reads like something I should immediately like: a girl is forced into a mental hospital by her evil stepfather after she accidentally kills her sister. She falls into an imaginary world within another imaginary world so she can fight and win her way to freedom.

At first I was willing to be forgiving about the Japanese school-girl uniform and over-the-top pandering to nerd/boys/gamers/anime fans -or whatever the demographic was, I’m still not sure- but I gave up after about twenty minutes. It’s not that I don’t accept that movies often portray women fighting in ridiculously skimpy clothing (I grew up on Tomb Raider, and didn’t have a problem when that was converted onto the big screen), but there’s something unsettling about the feel of this particular example. How many versions of the uniform do we need? I get it’s suppose to be ridiculous yet sexy, but I for one can’t  suppress the snorts of laughter as I watch a girl fighting with bare thighs, but still wearing heavy armor on her shoulder.

The slow-quick-slow style of fighting seems constantly to miss its own rhythm: being slow when it should be fast and vice versa. I had an overwhelming sensation that I was watching a very long quick-time event and wondered when I would be prompted to press a button. (For non-gamers: a quick-time event is typically a scene or sequence in a game where you will suddenly be prompted to press a single button to deliver a crushing final blow.)

Before anyone tries to argue this point: I do “get” that this movie is clearly supposed to be over-the-top and full of action and cool stuff, but I don’t feel the actual plot -which although easily forgotten during the fighting is still rather grim – lends itself to this sort of movie. You could argue that the imaginary world in which the fighting takes place should have a different style than the mental hospital because she invents it to cope, but the first-level world she creates is a bordello/nightclub where she’s about to be forced into prostitution. This is where the actual planning to escape takes place. The fighting sequences are merely  visual representations of her dancing. This place is not nearly as grim as the description would suggest. In fact it looks and feels the same as all the “levels.”

I think the moment I realised I would never truly like this movie was when the orderly/pimp (Oscar Isaac) censored himself before he said the word “fuck.” Sure, let’s have school-girls who are prostitutes, and can also fight like samurai warriors, but we can’t have a pimp actually threaten to fuck his own whore. Somehow, that just wasn’t something the filmmaker thought appropriate.

Another point against the “different layers of her mind have different tones or rules” is that they all feel exactly the same from a stylistic point of view. They’re all filmed through a sepia lens, and it all feels like it’s taking place indoors in a cramped studio despite the planets we see perfectly painted on the sky. The counter-argument here is that it takes place inside her mind, and therefore it could be said to be limited or claustrophobic, but it doesn’t feel claustrophobic or styled in any way like that: it just feels like a blue-screen painted orange.

So where were the “love it” experiences? Well, the only characters who interested me were the two sisters, Rocket and Sweat Pea (Jena Malone and Abbie Cornish), but I think that comes from having a sister of my own and knowing what a relationship like that feels like, not through the emotional impact of the flowing rivers of mascara.

The last five minutes, as I mentioned, got you to actually think about the plot, and this is where I finally sat up straight. I genuinely enjoyed how they escaped in the bordello-universe, yet were physically in the mental hospital. This is where the movie could have speculated about insanity, imagination and the nature of their possibly shared delusion. Unfortunately, the movie is just about done, and we don’t have time for answering questions. The ending instead attempts to be a message of staying strong and fighting against all odds. A message we’ve heard before, but not taken seriously. The gravitas of the bordello scenes are never long or actually serious enough for us to be drawn in emotionally, so the ending left me raising my eyebrows.

This is a movie that attempts to be so much that it really isn’t anything. It’s not interesting as an action movie for the fight scenes are either boring or ludicrous to the point beyond even satire. It’s not interesting as an exploration of the mind and insanity – see the points about the action above. Most importantly, it’s not a crazy, over-the-top romp just to have fun with lots of cool, nerdy ideas. It’s not your imagination brought to the big screen, because you can’t forget that at the core of the movie is a girl stuck in a horrific mental hospital. The orderly is without a doubt the most interesting character and the last scene with him, for me, robs this movie of any claim to the above, while also hinting at what could have been: a fascinating journey into the disturbed mind of a teenager, where crazy-fight scenes might very well occur, but hopefully not in slow-motion so slow I forget what she was hitting and where the other characters are.

I think, for me, the scene with the biggest emotional impact was when they killed a dragon, only I don’t think it went the way the filmmakers intended it. I was rooting for the dragon.

In conclusion to this very long rant: you will probably either love it or hate it, but if you do love it, I don’t think you can hope to explain it to those who don’t.

Dice roll: 2

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