in your dreams

tomoe gozenAs always, be ALERT for SPOILERS.

In our fantasies we are always better than we really are.  We are younger, smarter, better looking.  We are fit and accomplished.  Maybe we speak French fluently or can cook like Julia Child.   Maybe we know kung-fu (whoa!) or can swing a sword with the fiercest samurai.  Maybe we can ride horses or fly planes or just fly, no plane needed.  Maybe we rescue boatloads of children from terrorists or advise the President.  Hell, maybe we are the President and we’ve figured out a way to get Congress to do our bidding and we’ve fixed everything.  Whatever our fantasies, the important thing is that in them we can effortlessly do the things we can’t really do, we are both empowered and powerful.  We are superheroes.  Movies of course play up to this, feeding us larger than life heroes, normal people who do extraordinary things, and all sorts of magical beings (wizards, X-men, computer hackers, and denizens of Middle Earth) to serve as the catalyst for our own dreaming.   Fantasies are a way for us to briefly escape our lives.  Sucker Punch is a movie about fantasies that are literally lifesavers.

I guess the most succinct way to describe Sucker Punch is that it is a less pretentious version of Inception (although director Zack Snyder is altogether his own kind of pretentious).  It is a movie based on layers of fantasy, where actions at one level affect outcomes on the other levels as well.  Babydoll is young woman committed to a 1950’s era mental hospital by her unspeakably foul stepfather.  While she is being checked into the hospital she overhears her stepfather bribing an orderly to arrange to have her lobotomized in five days time so that she can’t testify against him in the accidental death of her sister.  After a few brief scenes of her life in the hospital in which we meet the other patients and the somewhat progressive doctor in charge of the facility, we next see Babydoll strapped into a chair awaiting the lobotomist.  From that point on the rest of the movie is an elaborate escape fantasy, in which Babydoll imagines that the hospital is actually a fancy bordello and she and her fellow patients are  courtesans who dance for and otherwise entertain clients.   The oily orderly is the manager of the bordello, Blue, and the doctor is the girls’ madame.  As the newest (and presumably virginal) girl, Babydoll is to be sold to the High Roller in five days.  When Baby Doll is asked to improvise the dance she will do for the High Roller she is transported to another level of fantasy in which the Wise Man (an incredibly wrinkly Scott Glenn) gives her some badass weapons, some sage advice, and the rudiments of an escape plan.   She is told that in order to escape she must acquire four specific items and also a fifth undefined item that will require a great sacrifice of her.  And then the Wise Man locks the door of the temple behind her and sends her out to fight three gigantic samurai.   After this first fantasy fight scene Babydoll finds herself back in the bordello with a stunned Blue and madame looking on.  Later, she recruits the other four girls to her escape plan, promising them that she is going to get them all out before the High Roller comes in five days.  Each time they need to acquire one  of the four items necessary for their plan, Babydoll dances and transports them all to the fantasy plane where they variably fight steampunk nazi zombies, orcs, dragons, and androids.

This movie was not beloved of the critics and I can see why.  It was poorly marketed; its trailer and most of its print material focused heavily on the “babes in short skirts and fetish leather” aspect of the movie and not so much on the more complicated themes of sexual victimization and escapism in the face of brutality.   It seems deliberately provocative and exploitive, so much so that  any deeper meaning is effectively masked.  The plot is comic-book silly and the characters  sometimes seem as if they were designed by an adolescent boy.  Snyder uses the same visual tricks he used in 300, the sudden slowing, stopping, and speeding of motion, the unnerving perspective shifts, the muted palette, and they don’t work any better here.  Scott Glenn is painfully craggy and he’s been given some of the worst lines ever (“Never write a check with your mouth you can’t cash with your ass”?  Really?)  The rest of the actors are just really blah, including whoever plays Babydoll.

Despite all this mess, there is more going on in this movie than is immediately apparent.  For one thing there are the nested fantasies.  These really are fantasies in the truest sense of the word.  In reality, Babydoll is a helpless victim, unable to prevent her fate.  She literally stands there silently while her stepfather and the orderly negotiate the price of  her short future.  In the bordello fantasy she is more proactive, less malleable, she even recruits the other girls to her plan and takes it on herself to do what it takes to transcend that level.  It is in the second fantasy level (I’ll call it the ninja level) though that the escapism goes full-bore and she is at last the agent of her own fate.  She is given weapons and a plan and all the skill, bravery, and stamina she needs to triumph.   She and the others confront and defeat one horrific enemy after another, wise-cracking all the way.  They know how to use fancy weapons, how to fly helicopters, how to defuse bombs.  They don’t need parachutes.  This escapism is not without concrete purpose; their actions in the ninja level have real effects on the bordello level and in the mental hospital.  This is both good and bad, since death in the fantasy means death in reality.   It is somewhat interesting that nothing the women fight is actually a living human being.   The only ones in the movie who really bleed and die are Babydoll and her compatriots.  The move has been criticized for being cliched but that is actually the entire point.   The hospital perfectly fits our idea of what a mental hospital is like, the bordello is what we think an 1880’s era New Orleans style fancy house would be, the ninja level is exactly what the audience expects it to be, full of giant scary monsters that make satisfying loud noises when they die.  The women themselves are cliches,  strong, action-oriented babes, tough but still sexy and vulnerable, as is every other character in the movie (evil stepparent, sleazy bordello owner, fat cat clients, wizened old mentor, tough exterior/heart of gold madame, etc.).  In the end everything in this movie is a cliche because that is exactly what our fantasies really are, cliched notions of power and importance and success.    We can totally understand both Babydoll’s impotence and her fantastic empowerment because we live this every day.   We just don’t dress like that.  (Well, I don’t.)

Finally there is the “twist” at the end, the sucker punch of the title.  It essentially converts this movie from poorly executed fantasy escapism (hey look, a chick in a short skirt!  With a sword!  Woo hoo!)  to one in which the viewer’s entire perception of the movie’s reality is challenged.  The entire movie is fantasy but it’s not our fantasy any more.  We are ripped suddenly from our complacency and thrown into a world where we don’t know what just happened.   We no longer know how deep the fantasy goes or where reality actually is.  It is…unsettling.   It is a blunt instrument that reminds us that we never really know what is going on, we aren’t in writing this story and it is out of our control.

So, bottom line, it’s not a great movie but I liked it whole hell of a lot more than I thought I would.  If you watch it pay close attention to the voice-overs.  They are important.

(Just on a side note, this the second movie I’ve watched relatively recently in which orbitoclasts figured prominently as a means of achieving honorable self-sacrifice.  I really hope this trend does not continue.)

Score:  Meh.

~ by gun street girl on August 23, 2011.

One Response to “in your dreams”

  1. Come on, tell me how you actually feel.

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