" It’s been 84 years and I can still smell the fresh paint "
— Gloria Stuart, Titanic

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If movies were strictly a visual medium, then Sucker Punch would be one of the greats. Alas, the best movies also engage the heart and the mind; therein Sucker Punch lacks muscle.

Valley of the Dolls

Babydoll and babes in arms
Babydoll and babes in arms

Sucker Punch marks the first feature film Zack Snyder has directed that’s not based on a previous movie (Dawn of the Dead), book (Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga’Hoole), or graphic novel (300, Watchmen). It’s Snyder’s original story and screenplay (co-written with first-time screenwriter Steve Shibuya).

Things start off promising. There’s loads of visual flair that engenders hope for a spunky yet moody adventure.

There’s no denying Snyder has an eye for lushly-realized imagery. There’s some great camera work, some fantastic screen composition. Alas, Snyder the “visionary” director gets bogged down with a story only Snyder the writer could love.

300 is arguably still his best work, thanks in large part to the gung-ho attitude of those Spartans. Watchmen, though, was a dense exercise in creating the equivalent of a graphic novel flipbook. Painfully adherent to source material frame recreation, it lacked excitement and had no energy of its own.

Sucker Punch softly lands somewhere between those two.

Babydoll

Here’s the back story, for what it’s worth: A woman dies, leaving everything to her two young daughters and shutting out her husband – the girls’ step-father – of any inheritance. In a fit of rage, he kills the younger sister and frames the older girl. She is sent to an asylum that is a front for a brothel, which in turn is a front for other dirty dealings, like drugs, guns, and gambling.

Things go from bad to worse for the girl dubbed “Babydoll” (Emily Browning, Ned Kelly) at the Lennox House for the Mentally Insane. She’s scheduled for a lobotomy in a mere five days.

Naturally, Babydoll wants out of the house. Retreating into her own imagination, Babydoll very quickly concocts an escape plan. It involves acquiring a map of the asylum, a lighter, a key, and a knife. There’s a fifth element, but that’s to be identified later.

In order to get the pieces for her plot, Babydoll starts to dance as part of the sexually-charged pageantry of Lennox House. It must be some kind of hot dancing because all the viewers are transfixed. That would exclude moviegoers, though. Babydoll’s dancing is never shown, just her sweaty brow after she’s done. Instead, the movie moves into her psyche, where some grand-scale action sequences unfold.

That’s Snyder’s excuse to create four action segments in totally different time periods and locations. One involves Samurais, there’s a World War I adventure, a World War II escapade, and the fourth takes place in outer space (naturally).

The lingering feeling is that Snyder had a whole bunch of disparate ideas in mind, bits and pieces of different movies that he wanted to cobble together and – vavoom! – Sucker Punch was born.

Love Is the Drug

While the visuals evoke 1930-40s serials, the music is strictly contemporary. The eclectic collection includes tunes by Eurythmics, Queen, Bjork, and Roxy Music.

In reference to the latter, Love Is the Drug accompanies the movie’s end credits. It’s performed by Carla Gugino (Sin City) and Oscar Isaac (Robin Hood). She’s the head mistress and he’s the head pimp at Lennox House. Surely their performance footage must be a music video; it’s actually among the best stuff in the movie. It captures a sense of fun reminiscent of Baz Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge! It’s a sense of fun that is almost completely and utterly lacking during the bulk of the preceding two hours.

As for that 1930s mise-en-scene, it prompts comparisons to Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow. A very affectionate tribute to the old 1930s sci-fi serials, Sky Captain used modern technology to create a world of clunky, steam-engine machinery. Sucker Punch carries some of that same vibe, but without a shred of Sky Captain’s innocence.

In fact, perhaps the biggest surprise about Sucker Punch is its PG-13 rating. That’s a shocker considering the violence, adult themes, and sexually-charged atmospherics. Compare that to the R rating given 127 Hours for one intense arm-cutting sequence (and maybe an “F” bomb or two) and it’s enough to request a sanity check of the MPAA.

Paws Up

There’s something odd – even wrong – about a movie that spends two hours showing off attractive young ladies prancing around in lingerie, tarting it up like Moulin Rouge castaways, and then preaching about how the power to control life lies within.

“Go fight!” is the movie’s closing mantra, a message that’s directed at all the girls out there who’ve been used and abused by a corrupt system and twisted men.

But how many girls – young or old – are going to be enchanted by this charmless fairy tale?

The sex appeal is almost strictly for the boys. Make no mistake about it. Emily Browning, Abbie Cornish (Limitless), Jena Malone (The Ruins), and Vanessa Hudgens (Thirteen) all provide plenty of eye candy in both lingerie and form-fitting combat gear.

But the movie’s quasi-preachy epiphany of girl power is almost insulting given the events of the preceding two hours – the events and the fetishes they satisfy. It’s borderline insidious.