Monday, March 28, 2011

More thoughts in defense of Sucker Punch.

The following is a re-edited form of a couple mini-essays that I wrote elsewhere over the weekend. I figured my readers might care to read them here as well. The actual review is here.

It is more than a little ironic that Sucker Punch is taking a critical beating for merely being an example of the very things that it's actually most critical of. At heart, it's a critical deconstruction of the casual sexualization of young women in pop culture, the inexplicable acceptance of institutional sexism and lechery, and whether or not images of empowered females on film can be disassociated with the sexual undercurrent of those same images. It’s an angry feminist screed, and a genuinely disconcerting little myth, without the ‘it’s all okay’ feel-good elements that would have made it more palatable to mainstream audiences. I wish it were a better movie overall (the plot is needlessly confusing in the first 25 minutes, and the characters are more game-board pieces than actual characters), but this is genuinely challenging movie-making and should be acknowledged as such.

It is a tricky thing that Zach Snyder was trying to do, making a genuinely bleak and depressing film about sexualization of women in pop culture as well as real life, while using some of those cliches to tell that story. But beneath the outfits and the very idea that attractive women with guns can qualify as titillating, here is next to no actual sexual material, and really Baby Doll (Emily Browning) is the only female character who is overly fetishized (the rest of the girls are basically attractive young women dressed in battle gear). The critics who complaint about empowerment missed the point – it’s not supposed to be empowering. You’re SUPPOSED to notice the creepy undertones, the fact that these action scenes are basically a mental distraction for Baby Doll as she is sexually exploited. My first thought coming out of the movie was (pardon the crudeness): “Zach Snyder just made While he raped me, I closed my eyes and imagined myself somewhere else: The Movie.” Pointing out that the film is not empowering is not a criticism, merely an objective statement regarding the film's overall tone. Films involving females do not have to be empowering. Feminism does not have to be empowering. It can exist merely to expose a problem involving gender relations.

Is it a great movie? Absolutely not. I cannot say how much of its flaws are due to MPAA and studio interference, but it is a severely compromised and messy picture. But it earns points for being about something genuinely interesting. Snyder could have just taken the same characters and action beats and made a guilt-free, live action version of The Powerpuff Girls, but he actually tried to make a real film. But even if you don’t care about the film’s messages (or don’t think the film successfully imparts said messages), it’s an incredible feat of action filmmaking. The second major set-piece is an all-time classic action scene, and just the kind of HUGE superhero action that we all claim we want in superhero films. I guarantee that set-piece (and the fourth major action scene) is why he got Superman.

All due respect to respected colleagues who just didn’t care for the movie, the majority of the pans are the sort of ‘can’t see past the glitzy special effects and sensationalist elements’ and then accusing the film of having no story/substance (see – Speed Racer, Beowulf, etc). Sucker Punch is not a great film, but it’s a dynamite piece of action filmmaking that has quite a bit of thoughtful subtext that partially makes up for the sloppy structure and relatively un-engaging characters. But I cannot fault anyone who saw what Snyder was trying to do and simply believe that he failed. It’s the critics and audience members who didn’t even try to look under the surface or couldn't see past the surface level elements being satirized that deserve our scorn.

Rarely have I spent so much time and effort defending a film that I merely liked. But the seemingly willful misinterpretation of the film merits mention and acknowledgement. You can't complain about the lack of challenging and socially-relevant mainstream movies and then fail to see the relevance of this challenging movie. It is no coincidence that Universal chose today to announce that it is finally moving ahead with a movie about... um... Candy Land. Reap what you sow, moviegoers.

Scott Mendelson

5 comments:

mcamason said...

I wanted to thank you for your insightful review and these further comments. Your review was the deciding factor in my seeing the movie this weekend, and I am very glad that I did. I find it astonishing that you are the only reviewer I've run across that has noted how closely tied-in the fantasy sequences are to the "reality" they are experiencing, and to the real world underneath it all. I think I see exactly where the changed sequence fits in, and the change in tone it would bring about, too.

My biggest complaint was the underdeveloped nature of the characters, particularly Amber and Blondie.

As it is, I'll be pointing people to your review and additional comments, for you articulate perfectly so many of the things that amazed me about the movie, and have kept it actively in my mind since I've seen it.

intertext9 said...

Hey Scott, liked your take on the flick. I recognized a nod to Jessica Lang's movie "Francis," a biographical film about Francis Farmer, the Hollywood actress unwillingly incarcerated at Western State psychiatric hospital, and then prostituted by the orderlies.

I didn't see the fantasy scenes as taking place in the mind of the character, so much as they appeared to be more of a necessarily allegorical representation of the character's experiences to keep the audience engaged while the main character is essentially being raped. They are there for the audience, to keep them watching, so that maybe in later reflection they will realize what happened and reflect.

The picture of the hospital as a brothel was necessary because the hospital functioned as a brothel, complete with sexual exploitation and money changing hands. The brothel allegory is actually a truer representation of the essence of the character's environment than could be conveyed in a movie about this patient in her psychiatric hospital.
The battle scenes appeared to me to be the vivid portrayal of a character who is willingly allowing herself to be exploited (perhaps raped) and through this apparent abuse, she is able to actualize a plan of escape.

At the end of the film it is revealed that the essence of every "fantasy" depiction was true. An orderly was assaulted, a fire was started, a patient did escape, and the main character, knowing she would be doomed to a life of abuse and exploitation, "chose" to be lobotomized so she could endure it (yes, plot spoiler).
In the end I thought it was actually more of a moral indictment against individuals of a complacent society who look for others to be their heroes. The battle scenes convey that the actions of the main character, implied yet not depicted, are as heroic as any hollywood action figure could have hoped to be. They are all intentionally over-the-top. The character is intentionally a wooden, shallow, helpless female. By using such a frail and powerless character, Zack Snyder can make the claim that we, the viewers, are able to actualize this same heroism, and the reason we do not, is because we are lazy and complacent.

I think this unique theme makes the movie worth watching, even, dare I say it, a must see.

the_bunk said...

Filmmakers can't seem to decry violence by employing overly stylized methods in depicting the acts that are supposed to repel us.

Too many films from Clockwork Organge to Sucker Punch, and more recently Kick-Ass and the Stieg Larsson films have done the same.

They want us to see the ramifications of violence but they present it in such a way that it drains any context or meaning out of it and that's why we celebrate the act and don't think about the action.

The marketing campaign for Sucker Punch gives no indication that this is about anything other than babes kicking ass.

Lauryn said...

@the_Bunk - exactly, because you wouldn't go see this film otherwise. I am a Synder fan. I loved what he did to Watchmen and 300, so without any info or a trailer (just a couple of outdoor posters) I had decided to see this film, and drag my boyfriend along for the ride (he saw the trailer was definitely happy to go).
I was shocked as to the nature of the film. I LOVED it (including the plot). Not only was it visually stimulating (which is why I went to see it), it was also mentally challenging. We left the theater debating certain aspects, both of us deciding to by the DVD when it came out.
I was floored at the negative reviews, because I was sure critics would see the inner workings that a even a female geek (not feminist) got and could enjoy the sentiments. Unfortunately, on Mendelson seemed to care anything about symbolism and theme when it came to this movie.
I wish Zach all the best in all his films. I'm sure that upon re-viewings I will find even more symbols. Like I did recently rewatching Kick-Ass.

SuckerPunchRage said...

Good review!

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