In my campaign to have reasonable discussions about unreasonably terrible writing in visual media, I have had very few opportunities to defend something as decent that was hailed as terrible. Simply because most movies that are average are received as such, however, there are exceptions. The cult classics that are technically terrible, but no one argues that point and adore it for how bad it is, or hidden gems that have lukewarm reception on release only to go on to incredible fame. These rarities are few and far between and, as you would know from reading this blog, there is far more mediocrity and subpar work being passed off as excellent these days than underappreciated masterpieces. That said, there is one movie that I saw on release that everyone I talked to either hated or was indifferent to and I could not quite understand why. It was what I would call a solid C movie, though I would definitely hear arguments for it being a C+ or even a B, and that is the film Sucker Punch.
Hear me out.
On IMDB it is given a 6 out of 10 and on Rotten Tomatoes it comes in even worse at 22% for critics and a 47% critic score. That’s pretty low for a film that was, at worst, average. Since I worked at a theater at the time of its release I got to see it the day it came out and was treated to angry rants about the film from friends and customers alike which was bewildering as someone who had enjoyed it well enough. It certainly wasn’t one of my top films of the year but was better than the vitriol that was leaving the theater. I heard the complaints levied at the film at the time and disagreed with almost all of them since they were irrelevant.
Let’s break down the four main major complaints I have heard and read.
1) The crux of the movie was Baby Doll’s dancing and they never even showed it.
This one is the one I heard the most from people at my theater. In the context of this movie her dancing is a bit of a mcguffin, it doesn’t matter what kind of dance it is, it only matters how it hypnotizes the people that watch it. Furthermore, it was absolutely the right move to not even bother to try and choreograph something, no matter what style of dance the movie went with someone in the audience would scoff at how unappealing or technically wrong it was. No one dance will translate to the audience the same level of captivation that the story purported it to have, instead what was shown was the visual interpretation of the dance. In short; it wasn’t shown because it couldn’t be.
2) The story was a mess!
This is one I have heard in person and in online reviews which is laughably incorrect. The story was painfully simple which was the catalyst that allowed the director to make the narrative three layers deep, putting and interpretive music video over the perception of a burlesque house on top of the reality of an asylum. The bare-bones fairy tale storytelling was exactly what such an abstract movie needed, if anything I would say it was too simple. The asylum was a natural progression of the plot, Baby Doll then saw the asylum as a burlesque house because of how the women were treated there, a change that was reflected in the set and wardrobe. Then when Baby Doll would dance, rather than show an unavoidably unsatisfactory dance sequence the movie gave a clear separation between the world they were in and the pure fantasy that represented both the action and the mood of the dance. These changes and why they were happening were even explicitly explained by the characters when they didn’t need to be.
3) It ripped off so much from all over.
This is a curious accusation and admittedly a criticism that is hard to explain as wrong because of the nature of a homage. This an accusation regularly leveled at Quentin Tarantino and I feel it’s just as invalid as a critique for him as it is here for Zack Snyder. It’s can be hard to peg when a director is respectfully using elements from another work in their own or when they are ripping off another property. The thing is all work is derivative in some form or another, to say, for instance, Avatar: The Last Air Bender rips off anime is a bit of a wonky claim because anime as a whole began with Astroboy which could reasonably be called a ripoff of Pinocchio, an American film. So where do we draw the line? Personally I feel like it is an homage when the elements lifted from other work serve towards elevating the work it is in, instead of just cannibalizing another’s work in hopes that the goodwill from the other property will make people like it more. So Avatar: The Last Airbender took a lot of elements from traditional anime however every single trope and style did nothing but make a good cartoon great, on the opposite side of the coin we can look at anything 3D Dreamworks did before Over the Hedge and compare it to the Pixar counterparts. Directors do not own pans, camera angles or story beats, it is problematic to imply that any use of certain elements is a ripoff of someone you recall that did it before them because that is entirely too subjective and creatively stifling. The elements taken in this film did nothing but enhance the scenes they were in, the choices were deliberate and it showed. Besides, despite accused of ripping off Asian cinema as a whole, various WWII movies and Lord of the Rings in particular it wouldn’t have mattered what scenes he used because someone will reasonably be able to say it looks like something else.
4) The movie was just a bunch of video game fetch quests.
This one is particularly egregious because it isn’t even a sensical complaint. Fetch quests in video games are usually disliked, however, they are disliked because they force the player to do the same thing over and over again. In this story the characters were depicted in completely different locals for each item they needed, if video game fetch quests were that diverse they would not be so universally abhorred. What’s more is that anything can come off as a negative if it is phrased like that; The Godfather was just a bunch of interlinked shooting scenes, Saving Private Ryan is just watching Call of Duty with no controller, Lord of the Rings is bad because it’s just a long escort mission ect. Saying something is like something else as a negative is not a legitimate criticism, the comparisons can be made but then the argument must be supported by objective facts as to why the link is, in fact, bad. Nonetheless, I argue that and that the link isn’t even true.
Now this movie was by no means perfect, the main issue I had with it personally was the ending thesis, it stated that there could only be one main character of a story or, similarly, that if a character dies then the story was somehow not about them. I would site Romeo and Juliet as a singular example that counters both points, and any casual moviegoer should be able to site dozens of examples that stomp that idea into the ground. Emily Browning’s acting left much to be desired though much of the supporting staff more than picked up the slack, and the quest given by The Wise Man character was entirely too vague. Sure the last item they would need to escape was meant to be a mystery revealed in a time of need, but why would the other girls not question the plan more? As I said there are complaints that can be made, but it seems the majority of reviewers don’t have those questions. I don’t know what caused the vitriol towards this movie, but my guess is that, based on the trailers, everyone had a totally different idea of the type of movie that was coming out and nothing causes negative responses quite like not living up to expectations.
Going in I had no idea what kind of movie this would be and as I watched it I was merely interested to see where it went. Nothing stood out as particularly offensive and I was entertained for the runtime, to me it did what a movie was supposed to do. In all this movie trashed by most, but I would say it definitely deserves better.