Let us briefly recount the career of filmmaker Zack Snyder. He made his directorial debut with 2004’s Dawn of the Dead, a remake of the George A. Romero zombie classic that satisfied old-school fans and newcomers. His star in Hollywood rose after the mega-success of 300, a panel-by-panel recreation of the Frank Miller graphic novel that took the bullet-time photography of The Matrix to a new level. Next, he accomplished what several other filmmakers had deemed impossible: He made a movie out of the seminal comic-book series Watchmen. Last year, he directed his first kid-friendly film, Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga’Hoole, based on the children’s book by Kathryn Lasky.
Now, with Sucker Punch, his first film based on an original story (he wrote the screenplay with Steve Shibuya, a former special-effects artist), Snyder cements his standing as one of the most gifted visual fantasists working in movies today. In Sucker Punch, you can see traces of all the films that led Snyder to this point: The fantastical action of 300, the comic-book roots of Watchmen, the nightmarish horror of Dawn, the innocent wonder of Ga’Hoole. Entirely new is the pointedly feminist overtone: The heroes in Sucker Punch are all women. The men, with one notable exception, are all monstrous (or monsters).
The story centers on Babydoll (Emily Browning), an orphan falsely accused of murdering her little sister and imprisoned inside an asylum where she is scheduled for a lobotomy. Before the procedure can be completed, Babydoll disappears into an alternate reality that exists entirely in her mind. There, she and four fellow inmates (Abbie Cornish, Jena Malone, Vanessa Hudgens and Jamie Chung) are performers in a bordello managed by the theatrical Madam Gorski (Carla Gugino) and run by the cruel pimp Blue (Miami’s Oscar Isaac). In order to escape — the cathouse and the mental institution — the girls must first fight off winged dragons, zombies, giant ninja robots and android aliens and collect five talismans.
No, Sucker Punch doesn’t make any sense. But none of that matters, because the ride Snyder takes you on is so vividly conceived, so deliriously bizarre and wonderful. The movie provides all the bearings you need in this imaginary world, so that you’re never really confused, even when the action is set inside a dream within a dream, a la Inception.
That action is tremendous. Sucker Punch is, first and foremost, a visual experience. The first 10 minutes or so unfold without dialogue, save for a bit of voiceover narration, recounting how the perfectly sane Babydoll wound up at a hospital for the insane. As Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This) blasts on the soundtrack (sung by Browning in an ominous growl), Snyder tells his story entirely through images, and those images provide everything you need to know about the girl’s wicked stepfather, her little sister and the tragedy that befalls her.
Snyder is in complete control of his craft in that opening sequence — it’s a bravura piece of filmmaking — and that feeling extends to Sucker Punch’s fantasy sequences. As the heroines go into combat on a World War I battlefield against steampunk soldiers, invade a medieval castle or board a speeding train on an alien planet, the movie becomes a thrilling comic book by way of Heavy Metal. Freed from the responsibility of having to stay faithful to someone else’s source material, Snyder lets his imagination run wild, and each shot becomes a panel in a beautifully illustrated graphic novel. You turn its pages slowly in order to savor the elegance of the artwork.
The title Sucker Punch refers not to an element in the story but to the movie’s effect on the viewer. Just about the moment you think you know what the film is all about, Snyder pulls the rug out from under you, and the story becomes something entirely different. Snyder is the rare kind of popular entertainer who isn’t afraid of grim endings — he knows that the best fairy tales are often the darkest — and he trusts his audience to understand and savor what he’s up to here. Not everyone will dig Sucker Punch, especially viewers who obsess over pesky matters of character development or simple logic. The movie lacks the emotional resonance of a true classic, but it compensates by tickling your imagination with a rapturous, transporting glee. The movie is a head trip of the most awesome kind — one I can’t wait to take again.
Cast: Emily Browning, Abbie Cornish, Jena Malone, Vanessa Hudgens, Jamie Chung, Oscar Isaac, Carla Gugino, Scott Glenn, Jon Hamm.
Director: Zack Snyder.
Screenwriter: Zack Snyder, Steve Shibuya.
Producers: Deborah Snyder, Zack Snyder.
A Warner Bros. Pictures release. Running time: 100 minutes. Vulgar language, violence, adult themes. Playing at area theaters.