Review in a Hurry: In his first nonadaptation, director Zack Snyder (300, Watchmen) seems to be trying for the most expensive art film ever, but the story—about girls in a mental institution who detach from reality—often sidetracks in favor of cool visuals that don't necessarily make sense. His ambition is impressive, but his attention span is limited.
The Bigger Picture: Though the ads promise a rah-rah, grrrl power action adventure, the reality is a bit more confusing, and likely to disappoint some. As 20-year-old Baby Doll (Emily Browning) prepares to be lobotomized at a shady asylum, she envisions herself in a brothel, where she mentally detaches into yet another reality during her dance numbers.
For those who've seen Dennis Potter's The Singing Detective (preferably the original TV series with Michael Gambon, rather than the movie with Robert Downey, Jr.), this is familiar territory. The patient escapes from a harsh reality by imagining him or herself as the hero of an adventure story, often distorting real-world memories into genre-specific action, while also featuring well-known songs played at unusual times. Interviews with Snyder suggest that the movie was in fact originally meant to be a full-on musical, but now the songs—old standbys by Queen and Björk among others, occasionally remixed—are merely played on the soundtrack rather than sung.
There are also strong touches of Moulin Rouge—anachronistic pop played in an imagined bordello years before any of that music existed—and numerous anime films. The movie's major conceit is that we never actually see Baby Doll do her sexy dance: Every time she begins, we zoom in on her eyes and enter the fantasy she dissociates into, where Scott Glenn keeps showing up to tell her to fight giant samurai with machine guns, steampunk World War I zombies or dragons. Four of her fellow inmates also appear with her: Blondie (Vanessa Hudgens), Amber (Jamie Chung) and sisters Rocket (Jena Malone) and Sweet Pea (Abbie Cornish).
These videogame-like scenes supposedly represent what's happening in the bordello reality as the gang tries to steal items that will help them escape; in turn, this represents events that happened in "real" reality. The correlation, however, isn't always so clear. For example: When Amber must seduce a rich man to grab a cigarette lighter from his inner pocket, this becomes a fantasy mission of cutting open a baby dragon's neck to get fire stones. Great. But then what does the mother dragon represent? Or the B-25 bomber they use to shoot at it with, for that matter?
It's apparent that Snyder also had to compete with dueling realities. In one, he's making a challenging art movie that turns sexist tropes on their head and partially indicts the audience. Back in the real world, this doesn't quite translate, as the shiny toys and unlimited budget take him on action-movie tangents that undercut his more unorthodox aspirations.
Let it be duly noted that Sucker Punch is undeniably cool to look at, but the way it tries to subvert the action with human darkness is laudable. What could have been a masterpiece feels a lot like a compromise, not just for the studio's sake but within Snyder himself.
The 180—a Second Opinion: There is apparently a longer director's cut in the works, featuring actual musical numbers and more dark subtext. If it clears up what exactly some of this stuff means, maybe it'll be the epic we're hoping for.