**WARNING - SPOILERS AHEAD**
I'm neither in the habit nor the business of doing movie reviews. But I really looked forward to this one, and while it exceeded my expectations in some ways, I was perplexed by other deficiencies. This is just my first-take opinion.
The premise: Girl loses her family, nasty step-father stuffs her into mental institution where she is scheduled for a lobotomy five days hence. She retreats into a fantasy world where she and four of her fellow inmates fight for survival while, in the real world, she works to escape the institution. I expected Sucker Punch to be sense candy. Brilliant visuals. Pulse-pounding music. Escapism. There would probably be a happy ending.
And then, a couple weeks back, the Sucker Punch crew began unveiling animated shorts set in the various fantasy scenarios the characters visit. They are grim, dangerous places, and I began to wonder just how dark this film was going to be.
The main character, Babydoll, (Emily Browning) is basically sold by her stepfather to Blue, a corrupt orderly (Oscar Isaac) who also plays the role of pimp and puppeteer in the fantasy sequences. Blue promises to get her lobotomized so that the stepfather will inherit his deceased wife's estate (it was left to her daughters-other daughter doesn't make it out of the opening sequence) for a chunk of cash. Meanwhile, in the background, the institution's therapist, a tense Carla Gugino, is conducting the unique therapeutic technique of playing music and having her patients act through the prior traumatic events that landed them in the institution.
The fact that the patient Sweet Pea (Abby Cornish) is sitting on a bed in a child's bedroom to act through her trauma was indication enough that the real world component of the movie would be grim. All the inmates are girls, and all are victims. If they weren't victims in their prior lives, they become so in the institution.
And so when we transition into the first fantasy scene and find that, there, the girls dance provocatively on stage and then service men in back rooms, it shouldn't have been a surprise. Even in their fantasies, the girls are commodities, under the control of and shaped by the depraved desires of their male captors. The therapist, ostensibly in charge of the institution, is nothing more than an aging whore in the girls' eyes. If anyone ever needed escape, ever needed to step into another world where they could assert control and have the strength to stand up to the threats around them, it's these characters.
I still wonder how dark this story could have been. It glosses over the worst of reality, blurring the real world with the burlesque stage setting of the fantasy world, from which the girls springboard into the larger fantasy realms. The movie entertains, but misses steps along the way. Or ignores them.
Sucker Punch has the feel of a second draft rushed into production when it should have gone another couple rounds. The action sequences are phenomenal, especially the fight in the German trenches. The worlds of the fantasy sequences are deep and complex. Looking for a scene to inspire your epic fantasy, sci fi, or steampunk adventures? Look no further. Even though we only see the small spaces the characters walk through, the glimpses of the active, 360 degree backgrounds, are amazing. You must see this on the big screen if you can. There were places where my hand twitched because I wanted to rewind a particular sequence and watch it again. And again. And, for good measure, once more.
But there are fundamental issues. Remember the old lesson of show versus tell? In the burlesque fantasy world, Babydoll's dancing is hypnotic, riveting all eyes on her. But it's never shown. Watches characters talk about something phenomenal that we could just as easily have seen is distracting. The real world and that first step into the fantasy world are blurred early and often, which makes it easy to forget as we're caught up in battles between automatic weapons and dragons, that there are real stakes in play. This, I think, is a big deficiency. The girls may be denying the desperation of Babydoll's situation, but it makes it more difficult for the audience to develop an emotional connection with the characters.
Sucker Punch isn't all flash-bang with no heart. It's just sort of a BYOheart situation. It hints at a bolder story, even whispers commentary on societal failures, but it also purposefully redirects the audience's gaze away from those things. That doesn't mean you can't explore them on your own.
If you don't want to think deep thoughts, then go enjoy a kick-ass movie. If you were hoping for a thought-provoking story, be prepared to do your thinking after the movie is over.