The other week I had the privilege of watching the movie Sucker Punch, directed by Zack Snyder, and I use the word privilege specifically. I don't know that this movie was actually made for me.
Sucker Punch is a movie that many have critically drubbed, to the point of labeling it varying degrees of schlock at best, and a video game movie at worst. What critics don't seem to realize about that last charge, of calling it a video game, is that the video gameish aspects of it are in fact a conscious and well wrought choice on the director's part. Sucker Punch is a movie about multiple layers of perception, of imagination, and of fantasy used to mask the very dark and sometimes inconceivable horrors that befall the powerless. This is a movie about the powerless finding power where they can in order to shape their own destinies. This is also a movie about making hard choices and doing what you need to in order to cope. These are nuances lost on a great many critics.
There are two, maybe even three levels of fantasy working at any given time of this movie. I say maybe three, because I'm not completely convinced that the asylum itself, with its own stylized version of a 1930s pulp story of institutionalization doesn't also constitute some fantastic version of an actual reality. The three layers we're privy to in the movie are the institution, which sandwiches or frames the narrative, the brothel/dancehall, and the video gamey action sequences. Each layer of fantasy is one more layer of protection for the main characters of the story, a layer of lies they tell to get themselves through the rather raw and painful reality of their lives. Had the director peeled those layers back completely, one would of have seen exploitation of the powerless at its most absolutely visceral.
So how do these layers work? The institutional layer is the closest to an objective reality. This is merely a funhouse reflection of the world in which these girls find themselves. In this world Baby Doll was almost attacked by her evil step father, and her sister killed before an attack could occur. I wonder if closer viewings might not support a reading of crisis not averted. In this world Rocket was merely thrown into the institution, and her sister followed. Rocket's style and dress, even her haircut and instant crush on Baby Doll suggests she was institutionalized for her unspoken but present sexuality. Again, these things are merely a superficial spackling that vaguely romanticize the institution.
The second layer is the combination brothel/dancehall where the girls are trained in the art of dance, where dance is as thinly veiled a metaphor for sex as one can possibly get without a pole and a feather boa. This layer, more than the first, shows signs of conforming to the girls' perspective of the world. In this version of the world, the orderly is the boss and has all the power, whereas the kind and compassionate doctor of the institution is more Madame/mother figure who finds herself subordinate to the boss, mostly by dint of her gender. As we discover near the end of this movie, the power dynamics between the boss/madame actually belie the real dynamics between the orderly/doctor, when the doctor asserts authority over the orderly that the madame never has. This act, which would have been a usurpation of power in the brothel world, suggests that the power dynamics are, as previously stated, based solely on the girls' read of the situation.
The third layer is the most problematical for critics and the one that makes most sense after an objective review. Again, I call this the video game layer. This is the layer that the girls retreat to when they engage in "the dance." In this layer girls have complete power over their environments. They are superheroes, batted around, beaten and bruised, but for the most part (and until fantasies start to bleed into each other) indestructible. There is a reason video games are a popular form of entertainment: they give power to the otherwise powerless. It doesn't matter how strong you are, quick you are, intelligent you are in real life; video games are the great equalizer capable of turning even the weakest among us into gods among men, or goddess among women in this case. This is a world where the girls all have power over their environments, where their skills, and their talents, and their ability to work together allows them to succeed. Also consider that the villains of these pieces, clockwork Germans, mechanical soldiers, knights and trolls, are all generic fantasy creations, cartoonish in their simplicity. Again the girls turn them into monsters they can reasonably defeat because their only hope of defeating the monsters in the other layers is through surrender.
That's why the fantasy needs to be there. These girls exist in a world where their skills are dismissed and where their talents are graded on their curves. Bob Chipman of The Escapist said that "This is a movie that invites the so-called male gaze, and then spits in its face." These girls exist in a world where exploitation is the norm, so they quite logically retreat to worlds where they can transcend that exploitation.
This whole thing brings me to how these layers interact. Each layer is a buffer of protection against the very harsh realities these girls, Baby Doll specifically, have to face. The video game layer is their attempt to find empowerment to justify their having to debase themselves to get what they need to survive. In the other layers, the only talents that will allow them to succeed are their abilities to dance (brothel world), seduce (institution world), or submit to sexual exploitation (unseen reality). The fact that so many layers of fantasy are required to make these acts even remotely palatable goes a long way toward suggesting just how much these girls must go through to win out in the end. As Scott Mendelson says in his review on the Huffington Post "'"Zach[sic] Snyder just made While he raped me, I closed my eyes and imagined myself somewhere else: The Movie.'" It's an apt epithet for a disturbing movie.
Unfortunately, few get past the sexy girls kicking monster butt. Closer examination drains the titillation out of the movie, when you realize that it's dealing with very real, very vile exploitation. While not a perfect movie -- I would go so far as to call Sucker Punch a beautiful mess -- it is definitely a movie that fills the screen with flash and dazzle, but it's flash and dazzle that begs to be scratched, begs to be dissected, begs to expose the very real and very twisted underbelly, the reality we never see, the reality that is only hinted at, and is only made the more disturbing by its absence.