A gaudy, adolescent fantasy riddled with mindless slow motion set-pieces marks a creative low-point for director Zack Snyder.
Opening with a young girl named Babydoll (Emily Browning) being sent to an asylum, Sucker Punch explores how she tries to escape her grim reality by imagining another world of an underworld bordello where she and her fellow inmates (Abbie Cornish, Jena Malone, Vanessa Hudgens) dance for various men.
This then develops into another imaginary world every time she dances, which features various combat missions against fantastical enemies (which include giant samurais, zombie Nazis and fire-breathing dragons) whilst a wise man (Scott Glenn) offers her guidance.
(Incidentally, there are some striking similarities to John Carpenter’s The Ward, a little seen horror from last year about a young woman sent to an asylum.)
All of this plays like a low-rent version of Inception, as various characters traverse different levels that affect one other, mixed with the camp theatricality of Burlesque, with the female characters dressed in increasingly over the top costumes.
Like his previous film 300 (2007), this is a world heavily reliant on stylised CGI landscapes, and armed with a sizeable budget (reportedly $80m), he has created what is essentially a hyperactive console game for the big screen.
The fundamental flaw is that none of it really matters.
Despite the sword fights, gun battles and attempts to escape the asylum, nothing is ever at truly at stake and there is zero tension as the film plays out like a deranged firework.
Snyder’s trademark use of slow-motion is especially tiresome, especially in addition to the use of songs (including sacrilegious covers of tracks by The Beatles, The Smiths and The Pixies) which make long stretches feel like a Britney Spears video.
It is hard to talk about the effectiveness of the performances, as Snyder’s script (co-written by Steve Shibuya) only allows his leading actresses to be the most puerile of fantasy figures.
Their names – Babydoll, Sweet Pea and Blondie – and increasingly icky attire reduce them to ciphers and the unreal set-pieces play out like a Charlie’s Angels episode on acid.
Actors in supporting roles don’t fair much better: Carla Gugino is memorable only for a bad Russian accent; Jon Hamm barely has any screen time at all; and Scott Glenn is on auto-pilot as a fatherly figure spouting words of advice.
In order to get commercial-friendly ratings (PG-13 in the US and 12A in the UK), Snyder has removed a sex scene and cleverly cut around the violence, so we don’t actually see anything too graphic.
Despite this, an uneasy air of sleaze still hangs over the production, especially given the fetish gear costume designer Michael Wilkinson has designed for the female leads.
The persistent threat of rape and violence towards young women – usually from sleazy, overweight men – also pervades the film like a bad smell and feels vaguely creepy in a film aimed squarely at younger-leaning audiences.
It isn’t often that you get a brothel, lobotomies, shootings to the head and attempted sexual assault in a 12A film, but I guess its all fantasy, so who cares anyway?
Sucker Punch is an original story in the sense that it wasn’t adapted from an existing property, but it is pretty unoriginal in processing existing films and games in this genre.
But to what end?
There’s no heart, emotion or tension here and all the sequences seem to have been designed solely to make a certain kind of fantasy nerd go ‘awesome!’. It also tries to capture a younger female audience who might like the idea of girls in kick-ass action roles.
But this film shows the danger inherent in giving an audience ‘what they want’ (or what the studios think they want) as it has already largely failed to appeal to either crowd.
The tidal wave of negative reviews, plus the fact that finished up behind Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Rodrick Rules on its opening weekend, suggest it alienated mainstream audiences and the very geeks it was supposed to indulge.
Snyder’s stock as a director is considerably diminished after this, but as he heads off to prepare for his upcoming Superman film one hopes he can put this relentless, vapid exercise behind him and make something worthwhile.