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Emily Browning plays a young woman living in an alternate reality in the action-packed Sucker Punch.
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Sucker Punch

Directed by Zack Snyder

Starring Emily Browning, Abbie Cornish, Jena Malone, Vanessa Hudgens, and Jamie Chung

Rated PG-13

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After two years of production, Zack Snyder returns with his fifth big movie, Sucker Punch, which many fans have been eagerly awaiting. The film has all the characteristics that Snyder’s previous projects have been well known for, but it is partially overloaded with action sequences that do not essentially contribute to the storyline.

In principle, Sucker Punch tells a very simple story. In the 1960s, a young woman, nicknamed “Baby Doll” (Emily Browning), is institutionalized by her cruel stepfather after her mother’s death and then subsequently tries to escape the asylum with the help of four other girls (Abbie Cornish, Jena Malone, Vanessa Hudgens, and Jamie Chung). To achieve this goal, the five girls need to find five items that will eventually enable their escape. Their time limit is five days, because Baby Doll’s stepfather has bribed the asylum’s orderly (Oscar Isaac) to arrange a lobotomy in order to prevent her from giving evidence in court against him.

The story setting might seem simple at first, but it provides the framework for two further levels of meta-plots, which comprise the major part of the film. The first meta-plot level is the sub-reality of a brothel where the girls are forced to perform as show girls and please clients. Baby Doll creates this world in her mind to escape the cruel reality of the asylum. She is the new star of the show and her virginity will finally be sold to the highest bidder after her first big performance.

This first meta-plot level is related to the reality in the asylum; everything that happens in the brothel represents real events, and the same characters appear in similar positions. For instance, the asylum’s leading psychiatrist is training the girls in the world of the brothel for their show, and the asylum’s orderly plays the owner of the brothel.

When Baby Doll first performs in the sub-reality setting of the brothel, she discovers her real-world ability to mesmerize everyone who is watching by dancing. The girls decide to utilize this ability to escape from the asylum. They plan to paralyze everybody with Baby Doll’s performance; meanwhile, the other four girls will obtain the items they need for their escape.

Baby Doll’s dances represent the second meta-plot level, which is almost entirely independent of the first two levels and provides different fantasy settings in which the girls have to achieve specific goals to gain access to the five items they need to find. These goals are always somehow loosely related to the items. For instance, the girls have to defeat a dragon in order to find “fire,” represented by the dragon’s soul stones within the fantasy setting and by a lighter at the reality and sub-reality levels.

Snyder turns the fantasy settings on the second meta-plot level into the epic visual fireworks for which he is so well known, fully displaying his abilities as a director of action movies. The fantasy settings are very much reminiscent of levels in a video game — each setting even provides a final boss to be defeated — picking up another aspect of pop culture. Sucker Punch’s script is the first that Snyder developed a major part of by himself, but he collaborated with Steve Shibuya. It was constructed to allow for these very distinct fantasy settings, as Snyder explains: “A while ago I had written a script for myself and there was a sequence in it that made me think, ‘How can I make a film that can have action sequences in it that aren’t limited by the physical realities that normal people are limited by, but still have the story make sense?’” Sucker Punch entirely revolves around this pre-defined scheme.

Unfortunately, it soon becomes clear that the five girls are pretty much invincible while fighting in the fantasy worlds. Combined with the fact that the settings are almost entirely unrelated to the actual story, this removes a lot of tension — ironically, it almost makes some action sequences tiresome. Snyder’s approach to enforcing the different fantasy settings seems to work only in part. It is not as well integrated into the main story as similar concepts — like Larry and Andy Wachowski’s Matrix trilogy — and appears a bit overwhelming. Part of the problem might be that Snyder was forced to cut many scenes in order to get the PG-13 rating, which frustrated him and made the movie hard to interpret.

Nevertheless, the fact that the action focus of Sucker Punch comes at the expense of the storyline remains very much the only flaw of the movie. Otherwise, it is a very solid production, providing the same visual quality as Snyder’s previous films (Watchmen and 300). Many scenes, including the opening events that lead to Baby Doll’s compulsory hospitalization, seem like well-composed video clips. The movie is a bit overloaded with action, but the action sequences are always top quality. Sucker Punch is stylish, makes many pop-culture references, and comes with a great soundtrack (featuring Björk, Skunk Anansie and Queen, among others), stunning special effects, and well-composed action sequences. If you liked 300 and Watchmen, you should definitely go see Sucker Punch.