As hot messes go, Sucker Punch lands somewhere between bald Britney Spears and blood-guzzling Ke$ha.
Ask yourself: Should Alice in Wonderland have had steampunk Nazi zombies and leather chaps? Would One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest have been better if Nurse Ratched was Polish and played by Cher (specifically the Cher from Burlesque)? Should Charlie Sheen's goddesses remake Inception?
If you answered affirmatively to any or all of the above, then good news: Zack Snyder's kinetic but surface-deep geek-palooza should satiate your most nerdly what-if desires. Excuse the rest of us while we quietly make our way back up this particular rabbit hole.
Certainly Snyder, director of feasts-for-the-eye 300 and Watchmen, doesn't lack ambition or talent or technical proficiency. Visually, this mash-up of Moulin Rouge and Heavy Metal is a riot of feverish, Gatling-gun-rapid images, bathed in a Pixies-and-Smiths soundscape that's as startling as it is surreal. But for all the floor-to-ceiling style, the story itself fails to involve.
Emily Browning stars as Babydoll, a teenage girl in the 1960s -- although period details are optional -- who is institutionalized in a psychiatric hospital by her abusive step-father. Is it grim? It makes Gotham's Arkham Asylum look like Malibu's Promises rehab centre.
If that wasn't dire enough, her step-father bribes a scheming orderly (Oscar Isaac) to forge a signature and ensure that Babydoll is lobotomized in a few days by a visiting doctor (Mad Men's Jon Hamm). That leaves her precious little time to plot an escape along with four fellow patients: the spirited Rocket (Jena Malone); her protective older sister Sweet Pea (Abbie Cornish); the street-tough Blondie (Vanessa Hudgens); and Amber (Jamie Chung). Not that we actually see Babydoll devise her plan. Instead, as a coping mechanism, she quickly escapes into her own thoughts and multiple parallel realities.
In the first, the psychiatric hospital is transformed into a swanky cabaret/brothel where the girls, mentored by Madam Gorski (Carla Gugino), are "dancers" whose skills are employed to service powerful men.
To steel herself as she dances, Babydoll sinks even deeper into her imagination before each routine: envisioning herself as a fierce warrior-vixen, armed with a sword and gun, and on a quest to retrieve mystical objects that together will unlock her salvation. Each mission offers its own dangers: fire-belching dragons in one, samurai giants in another; never mind the robots or the aforementioned Aryan undead.
Sound confusing? Surprisingly, that's not one of the film's issues because -- for all the realities-within-realities -- there's very little interweaving between the flesh-and-blood world and the realms Babydoll generates. Instead, events unfold almost exclusively in the fantastical dreamlands.
The downside of this? Because we know it isn't real -- and therefore we're not sure what's at stake from scene to scene -- it's hard to feel emotionally invested in the plight of the characters or care about the perils they confront.
As for the inevitable criticism that Sucker Punch amounts to a glorified big-screen video game, it's actually a more inert experience than that. Because we're passive observers and not participants, it's like watching someone else play a video game.