Welcome to Sucker Punch, ladies and gentlemen. Welcome to Girls On Display. Girls with blonde bunches. Girls in knee-high socks. Girls in fishnet stockings. Girls in ass-less chaps. Girls with exotic accents. Girls in leather. Girls who love dancing. Feisty girls. Virginal girls. Sisters. Action-ready girls, complete with big guns a-blazing. Girls with names like Baby Doll, Amber, Sweet Pea, Rocket and Blondie.
Girls on their knees. Girls having the top button of their cotton pyjamas ripped aside by a meaty paw. Girls forced to dance for their pimps. Girls whose obedience is ensured through the threat of rape. Girls' faces in lingering close-up, tearful and humiliated. Disposable girls. Girls sold to the highest bidder. All feminine life is here. The bad times, as well as the good.
It would be remiss of writer-director Zack Snyder to show the totally awesome things about being a girl - the dancing, the outfits, the constant scrutiny - without showing the bad things - the threat of rape, the crying, the violence - so the makers of Sucker Punch really do deserve a big old medal for getting that range of female experience out there. Where so many shallower types would have focussed entirely on the good times, Snyder boldly opens our eyes to the fact that sometimes, it's hard to be a woman.
Yep, it's all here, frequently filmed in clinging slow-mo, frequently sound-tracked by an unnecessary cover of a once-great song ("some of them want to be abuuuuuuuuuused", breathes voice of lead actress Emily Browning covering Sweet Dreams Are Made Of This) and frequently intent on insulting real action fans with laughably airless CGI battle sequences that feel like those animated "not actual game footage" sections in video game adverts. Impressive in a game, for sure, but not what you pay for in a movie, even a movie that takes place in so many realities: an old-timey asylum, an old-timey brothel, and a variety of fightin' lands populated with weak takes on Troma-style villains (cyber-Nazis, I, Robot style robots, unconvincing giant samurais et al).
A lot of the heat Sucker Punch has taken in its largely negative reviews has focussed on the laughably one-dimensional female characters. This is a shame, because it might lead you to expect that screenwriters Snyder and Steve Shibuya have spent all their time developing the male characters. Not so much. On the boys' side of things, it's a case of welcome to Perverts On Parade. There's the step-father, who, it is heavily implied, did Something Bad to our heroine Baby Doll and her sister. There's the Corrupt Asylum Orderly/Pencil Moustached Pimp (Oscar Isaac), whose hobbies include growling "you're mine, all of you," and licking women's faces when he's not too busy shooting them in the back of the head.
Then there's a Sleazy Mayor (Alan C. Peterson) who rocks up at the brothel in a fur coat like Roy Chubby Brown gate-crashing a 50 Cent video and proceeds to lick his lips a lot in a dastardly fashion. The poor actor doesn't get much else to do. There's also a cook (Malcolm Scott) in the brothel kitchen who resembles a taciturn sack of big red potatoes - let's call him Prince Edward. All these guys are painted as sex offenders, so perhaps when Snyder implies Sucker Punch has feminist undertones, his confusion is over the old myth that feminism means seeing all men as rapists.
At one point, a character describes how she was attacked by His Royal Spudface, Prince Edward. She says, "He comes up behind me. He pushes me down. He gets on top of me." Interestingly, rather than describing what happened to her, past tense ("he came in, he pushed me"), she uses present tense - you know, like people habitually do when they're describing sexual fantasies. It's just one of many subtle clues that reveal this film as somebody's idea of a sexual fantasy.
Thing is, Sucker Punch fails as fantasy - even a darkly twisted fantasy. If you want pornography, this film offers nothing but empty come-ons - there's no nudity and no sex, for starters. Equally, if you're a cinemagoer who has the temerity to expect an actual story with characters you can believe in and meaningfully root for (or meaningfully hate) you'll be short changed, because the characters here behave like the cardboard cut-outs of porn - without ever doing any of the things you'd want from effective pornography.
Neither one thing nor the other, Sucker Punch is eunuch porn, castrated for a 12A certificate, porn with the stabilisers on, a sanitised thrill ride, bankrupt of money shots, flailing around cynically in queasy imagery of sexual coercion as a possible way of getting a rise out of us without having to deliver anything so healthy (and yet from a ratings point of view, more off-limits) as explicit consensual sex.