Okay, let’s get this post out of the way so I can use my words in more constructive ways. Yes, I just saw Zack Snyder’s Sucker Punch, and as a member of the nerd community I am therefore compelled to give up my thoughts. These are preliminary conclusions – more reaction than actual concrete theory – but I don’t want to spend too much time on it as America has had a week of arguing about whether it is sexist or the end of cinema etc. and so my wurblings already mean less than nothing. But hell, if I’m going to pay £17 to see a movie (in the afternoon! Not even at night when they jack the prices up!) then I’m going to at least get a blogpost out of it.
First thing’s first. Smarter and nicer people than I have already batted this around a lot, so if you want to understand the current state of play re: reaction to Snyder’s magnum opus, then you need to check out these:
- Alyssa Rosenberg’s piece on the subjugation of women and Snyder’s laudable desire to make a movie featuring multiple women in an age when such a thing is unfashionable
- Anne Billson on the sexualised clothing of the Sucker Punch Five, and the general trend for hotties in fetishised clothes
- Zack Snyder and some cast members explain what they think the film means
- Annalee Newitz tears Sucker Punch into red, bloody pieces, calling it “a commentary on the death of moviemaking”
- Scarletscribe makes a case for the movie having more to say than the angriest of critics and fanboys are willing to accept
- Monika Bartyzel on the “faux-feminism” of Sucker Punch, and the unconvincing “empowerment” defence
All very good, and very thought-provoking. Which leads me to my first point; Snyder may have made a clunking, clattering, noisy and annoying failure, but he sure as hell got people talking, and I think that was his main goal anyway. Sucker Punch is designed to generate a reaction, though only occasionally does his filmmaking actually generate an emotional response other than numbed gurgling. I’m thinking here of the opening sequence; a dialogue-free and surprisingly nerve-wracking slow-motion prologue that sets out the stakes very quickly. It’s a bit unfortunate that the casting of Emily Browning means comparisons can be drawn to the Lemony Snicket movie (orphans, evil family members, etc), but this distraction means little.
My second point follows on from that. Snyder wanted to start a dialogue, but what was it? Sexism, exploitation, objectification and all that unpleasant jazz. The story is obviously drawing a line from familial sexual abuse, denigration and oppression of women, and the use of barbaric psychiatric regimes to deal with women who cause problems for their men, to the modern gender debate and the continued ill-treatment of women around the world. Snyder’s use of these emotive images and tropes is blunt, but then there is a real sense of anger here. You get the feeling he’s genuinely annoyed about these things, and sure as hell wanted the world to know about it.
So why the hot chicks in the sexy uniforms? Third point: nerd bait. Snyder wanted to give nerd culture a wake-up call about its objectification of women, and knew that we are all such snivelling little children that the only way for us to take the bitter medicine is to dress it up in sweet costumes and such. No nerd worth his salt is going to sit there and get told he’s wrong to have that poster of Megan Fox on his wall, so the Snyder-spider weaves a web and hides it behind a bunch of shots of Browning zipping around in a schoolgirl outfit with a samurai sword, and we multitudinous priapic clowns wander into the cinema and after a really quite boring 90 minutes of clumsy metaphor piled on top of clumsy metaphor… BAM! The equivalent of someone appearing on screen wagging their finger at the audience for being misogynists. I’ll give him this, it certainly wasn’t what anyone expected. Guess that “You Will Be Unprepared” tagline was right.
Point four: Is it gratuitously sexy? Yes, the ladies wander around in their smalls a lot of the time, but some of the money shots are surprisingly ambiguous. One slo-mo shot of the five girls walking in slow motion mimics some titillating Michael Bay-esque shot of models parading towards the camera, but the surroundings are more interesting. It’s the steampunk Nazi robot section of the movie, and they’re walking into a trench populated by “our boys”. What’s telling is that none of them look up, their eyes fixed down or away. As Snyder spends a lot of time focusing on eyes, there’s something being said about the Male Gaze here, perhaps that in Babydoll’s fantasy world she at least can escape that. In fact, the only man who looks at her (who even actually exists) in these fantasy worlds is Scott Glenn, and now that he looks like Leonard Nimoy’s older brother he arguably doesn’t pose a threat. He’s certainly a kindly old soul, though sadly lumbered with the worst dialogue.
In fact, the many tribulations of the five female characters very noticeably happen off camera, just as we do not see Babydoll’s supersexy dancing. All of the female characters who get killed have their moment of mortal wounding occur off screen, and when Babydoll dances we move into her fantasy worlds. Again, not what I was expecting. More to the point, the sexy costumes are less provocative than they seem at first, but as has been pointed out, there’s a difference between cosplay and dressing like a human being. Snyder is still making sure he adds the nerd bait with these costumes, and there’s just no point denying it, seeing as they add precisely nothing except sexiness to the plot. Such as there is one.
Point five: All of the nerd trappings here serve zero purpose, and – as has been pointed out before – are completely incongruous as Babydoll doesn’t seem to be the sort of person with a collection of Manga and video games in her sad room in the evil step-father’s house. They literally have no point whatsoever in the movie, but then the “sexy dancing” level of reality doesn’t either, other than as a way for Babydoll to process her experience in the mental institution. But then does that even exist, as the movie starts with Babydoll on a stage before she later sees the same stage in the institution? Are we just meant to assume that the movie is nothing more than a metaphor on every possible level, with only the wire framework of a narrative to keep us in our seats until the voiceover very bluntly tells the women in the audience to use their “weapons” to fight for themselves? If so, then Snyder’s need to lecture nerds about their unacceptable behaviour and immaturity could just as easily have been accomplished by putting some posters saying, “Don’t be such dicks” all around Comic-Con.
Point six: What the hell is this message anyway? I’m all for someone saying, “women deserve better than to be treated like objects for the sexual or visual gratification of the unevolved male”. I wholeheartedly endorse this message and am pleased to see Snyder is grappling with the way nerd culture has struggled to absorb this very simple idea into itself. Sadly, as Watchmen showed, Snyder can have a thought but have great difficulty expressing it very clearly. His love of Moore and Gibbons’ comic was obvious, so slavish was his imitation. However, the clunky failures of tonal translation were numerous, suggesting that while he loved the comic and wanted to show to the world just how strong that love was, he didn’t actually know why it worked, or why it has resonated with readers for decades. It was all surface. If he had understood it, he would see it needed to be ripped apart and put back together again for it to work. His love got in the way of the storytelling.
Same here. He really really really wants to make a big statement about sexism and objectification, and adds some interesting ideas (the covering and uncovering of female faces, the absence of actual names, the stretches where women are robbed of their voices, the facelessness of the male enemies in the sub-levels, etc.), but he doesn’t know how to put them together properly. It doesn’t help that his nerd-bait imagery gets in the way so much. They look sexy, and yet don’t and yet do. It’s iconography that gets in the way of the message while being necessary for the dissemination of the message and yet is utterly superfluous.
I’m having trouble describing the multiple cognitive disconnects needed to make sense of his haphazard jumble of meaning, but then in a way that perfectly describes it. He’s against the thing he’s using to show how he’s against it, but the reaction of the audience is not under his control. Whether he likes it or not, there are going to be audience members who think the talking got in the way of the hot chicks with the guns and stockings, and so should he have bothered putting it in in the first place? I think this is where Sucker Punch falls down the most. Certainly most of the to-and-fro in the blogosphere concerns the level of exploitation here, and whether it enhances or detracts from the message.
One thing is clear, though. In the immortal words of Groucho Marx, whatever it is, he’s against it. It’s impossible not to see that he’s struggling to say something, but he’s not a strong enough storyteller to get that point across without patronising the audience or realising that he’s muddling things up to the point that it’s impossible to pick through it. Maybe that’s actually intentional and he’s smarter than us: why bother making a clear point when we will do it all for him? Or he’s trying to make something for everyone. Titillation for the troglodytes, “empowerment” for the feminists. If so, he falls short on both counts, which, in the second case, is a shame.
What makes things worse is if we take his metaphors literally. Is he really saying to women that they have the advantages because while men are murderous rapists who treat women like possessions, we’re also so boner-obsessed that whenever the ladies dance all sexy-like, we literally fall into a stupor, enabling the canny women to get their way? There is not enough WTF in a million sub-levels of mental reality to even begin to cover this cheeky and absurd idea that manages to insult both genders simultaneously. Shake that booty, ladies, then pick our pockets! That’s using your “weapons”, all right! What a fucking awful world-view. What a reductive and insulting way to address the gender debate of our time. It’s the sort of fucked-up philosophy you’d hear some “nice guy” coming up with. “You women are so awesome, and powerful, and so in control of your sexuality. Nobody else out there understands how awesome you are. Except me. Now please go out with me.” No no no no wrong wrong wrong please stop.
So is there anything worthwhile in the movie besides the mish-mash of misogyny, misandry and feminism? Abbie Cornish is pretty good (though it’s sad to see her here after being so good in Bright Star), as is Jena Malone, both of whom are better at breathing life into the cyphers they are playing than anyone else in the cast, though Oscar Isaac makes a very hissable villain. Carla Gugino’s accent is… not the worst thing I’ve ever heard. The action scenes are occasionally well-staged, with some being surprisingly clear and others being a headache-inducing barrage of… splarg is the only word I can think of to describe it. The robot level was quite clever; a “single shot” that goes on for a while and flies around all over the place. There was a nice shot involving mirrors at one point, but after Black Swan – surely the most mirrored movie ever made – it was just unnecessary. Scott Glenn seemed to be having a good time. The dragon was pretty. The godawful cover versions of good songs end eventually. Erm… It was fun spotting all of the nerd iconography: steampunk, orcs, single-shot pistols, samurai swords, miniguns, etc. Sad that none of it was there for any reason other than that Snyder wanted to cover all of his bases. There’s a thesis to be written about his use of that iconography, though it would only ever get a C- at best.
The only other thing to praise is its ambition. It fails pretty spectacularly at almost everything it attempts to achieve, but it is trying to do – and say – something. That’s something that it has over just about every movie that will be released for the rest of the year. It’s just a shame that Snyder didn’t sit down and work out exactly what he wanted to say before he made this garish and needlessly complicated nerd epic, a movie that desperately wants to mean something but ultimately means nothing.