The only thing more difficult than sitting through "Sucker Punch" for two hours is explaining it in fewer than two hours.
This is the first time slow-motion virtuoso Zach Snyder has been given the opportunity to write and direct his own original material — since his success with the two graphic-novel adaptations "300" and "Watchmen," and a bit of a stumble with his last film, the animated adaptation "Legend of the Guardian: The Owls of Ga'hoole." If you didn't think a person could go bigger than homoerotic Greek warriors and talking owls, you're in for a treat.
"Sucker Punch" is about a young woman named Babydoll (Emily Browning) who gets committed to an asylum that only seems to admit girls who lost out to Christina Aguilera for the lead in "Burlesque." An entire season's worth of "Skins" extras has been assembled to demonstrate convincingly that the asylum is a real location with living, breathing people walking around in it, but the speaking-role segment is limited to Babydoll's main clique: Sweet Pea (Abbie Cornish), Sweet Pea's sister, Rocket (Jena Malone), a brunette named Blondie (Vanessa Hudgens) and, for some ethnic diversity, an Asian chick named Amber (Jamie Chung).
Together they form a sort of "Girl, Interrupted"-meets-the-Pussycat-Dolls gang planning its escape under the nose of a sleazy warden named Blue (Oscar Isaac), while receiving dance instruction from the Eastern European-accented psychologist (Carla Gugino), who must have been included as a nod to that one "Susperia" fan in the audience. The girls need to get out before Babydoll is lobotomized — ! — five days after entering the asylum, whether or not all the proper paper work has been filed.
We haven't even gotten to the really weird stuff yet, and we're only about 20 minutes in. When Babydoll dances, she's transported into fantasy worlds where she fights monsters and receives instruction on how to break out of her confinement from a Wise Man played by Scott Glenn, doing his best Kane from "Kung-Fu," although with decidedly less inspiring words of wisdom ("Don't let your mouth write a check your ass can't cash"). Making frequent trips to this fantasy realm to collect special items, Babydoll and the gang do battle with giant samurai, clockwork soldiers, the orcs from "The Lord of the Rings," and the robots from "I, Robot," among other creatures that will be familiar to summer movie fans. They also like to leap from heights into martial-arts crouches, probably because they saw it in "The Matrix."
We've only scratched the surface of Snyder's masterwork.
Audiences of all stripes have been quick to dismiss it as simply another shakedown of teenage boys, but Snyder's film is obviously so much more ambitious than that. On top of everything it has the structure and pacing of a terrible musical, its female empowerment-meets-creepy-sex-slave angle lurching to a stop whenever Babydoll goes into a reverie, her would-be dance routines replaced by giant action set pieces that resemble video-game boss battles, in an obvious nod to the trailblazing work of "Scott Pilgrim vs. the World."
Those who have delved into the nether reaches of crass pop culture will recognize Babydoll's look, with her platinum blonde hair, large eyes and skanky schoolgirl uniform as bearing a striking resembles to the Japanese anime series "Sailor Moon." Japanese anime, as everyone knows, is an exemplar of reason and good taste. That's why we aren't surprised when World War I makes an appearance (although sometimes it looks suspiciously like World War II) or that all this make-believe is necessary to sneak out of a rickety asylum with three full-time employees. Why simply steal a key when you can strap on sexy leggings, karate kick your way through some trench warfare and bag a giant zeppelin while wielding a flintlock musket?
"This is what happens when you give a geek carte blanche," one online commenter complained before the movie was even in theaters. Maybe, but it's easy to call "Sucker Punch" another monument in the legacy of clueless Hollywood pandering. This is way bigger than that. It's like a giant mirror reflecting our junk culture, the movie equivalent of Homer Simpson's perfect car. The studio-provided synopsis reads: "Close your eyes. Open your mind."
Really? Close our eyes? Well, one out of two pieces of advice isn't bad. (PG-13) 110 min. S