With Emily Browning, Abbie Cornish, Jena Malone, Carla Gugino, Oscar Isaac. Directed by Zack Snyder. Rated PG-13 for thematic material involving sexuality, violence and combat sequences, and for language. 109 minutes.
Did you ever wonder what would have happened if Zack Snyder, director of “300” and “Watchmen,” had made “Inception?” No, neither did anyone else, but now we have the answer anyway with SUCKER PUNCH, a film of stunning and imaginative visuals married to a complex if highly schematic story. Back in the ‘60s they would have called a movie like this a “head trip.”
Here’s the story and try to pay attention because it gets confusing: Baby Doll (Emily Browning) accidentally kills her younger sister when trying to protect her from their evil stepfather. She ends up being committed to an institution for the “mentally insane [sic]” where a sleazy orderly (Oscar Isaac) agrees that for the right bribe he can have her lobotomized. At the facility, Dr. Vera Gorski (Carla Gugino) actually tries to help the inmates by getting them to act out the traumas of their lives.
Suddenly, the scene shifts from grey reality to a world with more color in it. The institution is now a brothel, the orderly is the boss, and Dr. Gorski is the choreographer for the dance numbers the girls have to put on before the clientele makes their selection. During her dance, tryout Baby Doll is transported to yet another level of reality where a wise man (Scott Glenn) arms her with a gun and a samurai sword and tells her she will need to collect five things to escape to freedom. She then gets to battle three CGI monsters.
When she comes back to the brothel, we learn she has apparently danced up a storm and in a few days her virginal body will be offered up to the High Roller (Jon Hamm, who is also the lobotomist in the first level of the story). She gathers several of the other dancers (Abbie Cornish, Jena Malone, Vanessa Hudgens, Jamie Chung) and tells them they need a map, fire, a knife and a key. There’s also a fifth item which the wise man has told her she will figure out at the right time. The bulk of the movie now becomes their adventures on the second and third levels of the story. When Baby Doll dances and distracts their keepers, they get transported to the third level and fight things like zombie World War I German soldiers or dragons while obtaining the items. The only mysteries are who survives and who escapes and, of course, what any of this has to do with the reality of the first level.
This is a movie with the logic of a video game, with all that implies. No doubt it will be a video game soon enough if it isn’t already. It is very striking to watch, but the appeal is in the surreal visuals and how characters change from one level to the next. Beyond the surface there’s not much there. It’s just a series of showdowns with bad guys and monsters, and then the pseudo-profundity of the ending which may surprise but carries no deeper meaning. “Sucker Punch” is rarely dull, but whereas “Inception” made you think, this movie just wants you to react.•••
Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books, the most recent being Jar Jar Binks Must Die… And Other Observations About Science Fiction Movies. He teaches film at Suffolk University and lives in Somerville.