The French call it “homage,” but Zack Snyder prefers the term “mash-up,” which is no doubt a more appropriate way to describe the cacophonous, half-digested mass of pop-culture influences that make up “Sucker Punch,” a crass women’s penitentiary picture reconceived for today’s manga- and vidgame-savvy crowd. Misleadingly positioned as female empowerment despite clearly having been hatched as fantasy fodder for 13-year-old guys, this sensory-overload exercise tarts up six actresses in service of various “Heavy Metal”-style scenarios — a setup likely to sucker fanboys while leaving those who crave humanity and good old-fashioned storytelling feeling like cavemen who’ve stumbled into Times Square.
With “Watchmen,” Warners dubbed Snyder a “visionary director,” and here we get to see just what said vision amounts to as the helmer is left to his own devices on his first wholly original project. Although Snyder concocted the setup from scratch, the meticulously storyboarded compositions still feel like frames lifted from a graphic novel, fragmenting the narrative into a sequence of iconic images disconnected enough that the audience must still work to decipher their meaning.
After losing her only two blood relatives in a bad-taste prologue, Emily Browning’s “Babydoll” character (the actress’ “Lemony Snicket” role was a mere warm-up for the unfortunate events ahead here) is committed to Lennox House, an asylum where she’s scheduled to receive a lobotomy in five days’ time. Rather than face harsh reality, Babydoll plunges into her own imagination, upgrading the maximum-security hospital to a high-end bordello where she and her fellow inmates (Abbie Cornish, Jena Malone, Vanessa Hudgens and Jamie Chung, playing nymphets with names like Sweet Pea and Rocket) are forced to dance for an assortment of grotesque men.
Only in Snyder’s mind could this scenario be seen as any less degrading than living in a mental institution, which explains why Babydoll must invent a second fantasy layer where she can escape every time she is called upon to perform an exotic dance. While her call-girl avatar shimmies offscreen for the lecherous warden (Oscar Isaac) and his cronies, including Carla Gugino as a badly Russian-accented madam, we see Babydoll transported into various gonzo vidgame missions, facing off against giant samurai, Nazi zombies, fire-breathing dragons and mechanized robots, while a weathered Scott Glenn serves as her bumper-sticker-quoting sensei/spirit guide.
As dream sequences go, these overloaded and inelegant action scenes, inspired by such fanboy staples as role-playing games, anime, the Frank Miller oeuvre and racy Sorayama-style paintings, are the last thing one might expect from the mind of a traumatized lass, however refreshing it may be to see young actresses going all “Kill Bill” on platoons of bad guys. Like Quentin Tarantino, Snyder is unapologetic about his influences — the trashier the better — though he’s far less skilled in the art of pastiche.
Rather than creating a coherent new narrative from these assorted lowbrow sources, “Sucker Punch” attempts to mash everything into the same CG frame. The environmental effects look great, lending an apocalyptic air to Babydoll’s mini-adventures. But the actresses seem out of place against these backdrops — not on account of their gender, but because costume designer Michael Wilkinson outfits them in demeaning fetish gear, objectifying the ladies much as Snyder did the Spartan hardbodies in “300.”
Browning may be old enough to vote, but she’s been made to look like jailbait with her wide-eyed stare and Sailor Moon-style Japanese schoolgirl uniform. Though most of her stunts are handled by a badly matched digital double, to her credit, Browning does perform three songs on Tyler Bates and Marius de Vries’ raucous classic-rock-cover soundtrack, which may well be the project’s most impressive bit of recycling.
“Sucker Punch” reportedly shed nearly an entire reel’s worth of footage in order to land a PG-13 rating, and even then, the film feels highly inappropriate for young viewers. From the opening scene, young ladies seem to be under constant threat of being raped or murdered by grown men, and cutting around the brutality doesn’t diminish the effect at all. If this is where Snyder’s imagination goes when he’s free to create his own material, maybe he’s better off sticking to adaptations.