So try this scenario on for size: You’re just a regular guy who likes to look at porn on the Internet. The phrase “barely legal,” the prospect of 20-year-old ladies (Too old! Try not to think about it!) prancing around in pigtails and Catholic schoolgirl uniforms, their contorted faces and twisted bodies, gives you just cause to whip out your credit card and, at the moment of truth, punch in the three-digit security code.
Fast-forward 10 minutes. Now sated, your attention turns to other priorities: violent anime, Guillermo del Toro films, Boris Vallejo artwork, Heavy Metal magazine, Peter Jackson’s Tolkien trilogy, Alan Moore novels, etc. As you look back over your day—and, hey man, no shame—you run a quick census of your two most prized entertainments: a) barely-legal girls taking it in every conceivable hole, and b) epic fantasies of limitless awesomeness, violence, and spectacle. Two great things that go great together, right? You ask yourself, can’t someone, anyone, with limitless funding and all the latest developments in computer-generated special effects, make one movie that combines both of my passions?
Thanks to Zack Snyder, not only is the answer a firm “No,” it’s likely we’ll never see anything of the kind—at least not for a very, very long time. Sucker Punch is a scorched-earth PG-13 epic, making any possible return to these heights of excess utterly distasteful to financiers and visionaries alike, while failing every opportunity to deliver the sexy, bloody payload promised by the film’s very existence: girls in fetish outfits, kicking ass and taking names.
Since there isn’t enough spatial coherence (or narrative coherence—it’s 300 and Gunsmith Cats in a blender) to warrant a plot synopsis that remotely respects the shape of the film in question, the best I can do is a shopping list:
• Spinning in the air 360 degrees and shooting out a robot’s skull (countless iterations, sometimes not a robot but an undead German soldier)
• Explosions and other pyrotechnic imagery (countless)
• Cleavage (lots); breasts (zero)
• Idiotic, non-sequitur platitudes issued by Very Special Guest Star Scott Glenn (4)
• Layers of inception (3, including the film itself)
• Blood spray/spatter (0); network television-safe wounds (2?)
• Sex (ha! None); fear and loathing at the thought of sex (all-encompassing)
• Grotesque, skeevy men (all, with the exception of 0.5 Don Drapers)
• Extremely ill-advised cover songs (many…bring earplugs)
You’ve heard of films wanting their cake and eating it too? Sucker Punch promises cake and when you show up, it’s fruitcake, and you’re like, “What the fuck is this shit?” Because nobody likes fruitcake. And it’s tough to imagine anyone liking this humorless white elephant, with its porn dialogue and vomity color palette, with no viable assets except spent shell casings and overtaxed terabytes as far as the eye can see. It’s the check written by MTV’s Aeon Flux that Karyn Kusama’s 2005 film adaptation’s ass couldn’t cash. It’s also a textbook illustration of the PG-13 rating tier.
Did Steven Spielberg ruin Hollywood? It’s a question that has soothed the minds of “they don’t make ’em like they used to” cinephiles who see the downfall of studio filmmaking not as a narrative of the slow but absolute absorption of what once passed for Hollywood unto behemoth, omnivorous “content” and “media” companies, blind idiot gods for whom movies are merely another line on their quarterly statement, but instead in the image (let’s go full Vallejo now) of Don Lockwood’s bloody, broken cadaver run through by a Great White’s rows of ivory skewers, while in the background, Indiana Jones is sodomizing Madeleine Elster over Sam Spade’s desk, amid the broken shards of Rosebud the Sled. Did Steven Spielberg ruin the movies? Well, kind of…but not like that. It was something else: the implementation and evolution of the PG-13 rating, the direct result of the greater-than-PG, less-than-R violence in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom and Gremlins (which Spielberg produced).
Thanks to PG-13, now widely regarded as the skeleton-key rating for candy-assed Hollywood executives who promise everything television can’t provide, but have long since forfeited their souls to malevolent, unnamed demographics that require all violence to be bloodless, all sex to be never-nude, all titillation to be…well, not even titillation, just a Sprint Picture Mall of objects of desire, all dolled up and sanitized for Sunday brunch. Just as function follows form, Sucker Punch serves as perhaps the most emblematic PG-13 movie in recent memory: It provides sensations that exceed the means even of the most ambitious television programs (2.35:1 widescreen, an ear-splitting sound mix, all the world-building money can buy), but sings the anthem of compromise at every turn. You in the audience: You want the film to whisper “just the tip” even while it rips off your panties with its teeth. Surprise! This film just wants to talk. And talk. And talk.
Prior to the screening of Sucker Punch, I chose to watch George A. Romero’s Bruiser, the last feature he made before the fourth, fifth, and sixth …of the Dead films. It doesn’t have much of a reputation—what little I’d heard about it wouldn’t have compelled me to check it out, were I not already a Romero convert—and, in truth, it’s a little bit overmanaged (a lot of thematic stuff spelled out un-casually in the dialogue) and ultimately it falls on its face enough times to get pretty dizzy. But it’s quite good, a frisky, naughty moral tale (a dull moral, something about standing up for yourself), well worth seeing for its inventive camerawork, a spirited lead performance by Jason Flemyng, a thrillingly unhinged one by Peter Stormare, and an epic, perverse, brilliantly choreographed masquerade ball sequence that seems to occupy the no-man’s-land between the USO dance in Spielberg’s 1941 and the finale of Ferrara’s Ms. 45.
Paradoxically, one of the key items on Romero’s agenda is the skewering of the über-masculine sensibility, as spewed venomously by Stormare’s coked-out/sex fiend/magazine impresario Milo Styles. Ever a man outside his own time, Romero’s 2000 film is the last death rattle of 1980s excess (cinematic, cultural, American imperialist, financial), sending up handball-playing, Merc-driving vultures in the investment banking industry, as well as the pompous asses who govern our “image” industry—both of whom purport to represent the pinnacle of masculine virtue as it facilitates American endeavor.
Romero now works with ever-diminishing budgets, yet manages to make ever more trenchant, elegiac odes to disreputable genres—finding in simple satire/suspense/horror/fable/road movie/under siege structures the purest expressions of strange and confused, but genuine, emotions. It makes no sense to ask what Romero would make of Snyder’s work to date (he is said to have been not-disgusted by the Dawn of the Dead remake) and it wouldn’t make a difference. But after seeing Stormare’s character bebop around his boardroom, flashing his penis at his staffers and berating them for lacking “Baaaalls!,” I couldn’t help but have a similar vision of Snyder presiding over a roomful of interns, hurling magazines and comic books and graphic novels at them and shrieking “I like this! Samurai chicks! Gimme some of that!” Only, before adjourning the conference, he flashes dual peace signs and reminds them, “Remember folks, we don’t make the green unless it’s PG-13. Ciao!”
Jaime N. Christley writes for and curates unexamined/essentials, has been writing about movies for 15 years, and would like it very much if his mother didn’t find out about this review.