Review by Kristen Heine

“Chick Flick” would not likely come to mind when you mention the name, Zach Snyder. As the director of 300, Watchmen, and a 2004 remake of George Romero’s Dawn of the Dead, Snyder seems decidedly grounded in the “making movies for guys” category. All of these films have had solidly male casts, stories based around some kind of underdog trying to overcome the odds, and a whole lot of people getting hacked or beaten to death. Yet his most recent turn at the wheel yielded Sucker Punch, an action movie for sure, but most definitely a chick flick.

The central story follows Baby Doll (Emily Browning), as she goes from beloved daughter, to object of abuse, to would-be murderer, and finally to psychiatric patient in a Victorian-esque mental institute. This doesn’t really give anything away, as this all happens in music video-like fashion, in the first few minutes of the film.

The dank mental hospital, run by Dr. Vera Gorski (Carla Gugino) is where the rest of the film unfolds. The atmosphere and appearance of the asylum set a pretty dark tone. The weather is always stormy, the colors are dim and gray, and everything in the place looks dirty and rusty, like you might get tetanus just from breathing the air. The only contrast is the bright blonde hair and white porcelain skin of Baby Doll—a little glint of hope against the gloom.

Held there against her will, Baby Doll must procure a series of objects in order to escape being lobotomized by a very handsome doctor (Mad Men’s Jon Hamm). Sucker Punch throws the audience down the rabbit hole at this point, moving the characters into one imagined reality within another imagined reality. While it may sound that way, complicated it’s not. Snyder’s goal is to bypass a lot of storytelling, and get to a point where he can use as much CGI as possible. Normally that kind of thing would sink a film, but the CGI is impressive. Really impressive.

Baby Doll and her cohort of inmates/dancers/fighters make their way through a series of tests, all guided by a cliche-spouting guru (Scott Glenn). Sweet Pea (Abbie Cornish) is the cautious one, often wielding a machine gun; Rocket (Jena Malone) is Sweet Pea’s younger, and much more foolish sister; Blondie (Vanessa Hudgens) and Amber (Jamie Chung) also tag along to do away with a whole slew of monsters.

The girls fight their way through giant stone samurai, Nazi zombies, fire-breathing dragons, and finally futuristic robots. The film is chock full of the clinking sound of swords, the click and clack of wartime machinery, and bullets whizzing by the girls’ pretty little heads. In the midst of so much that’s been computer generated, the three stone samurai stand out. Their size- skyscraper like when compared with the tiny Baby Doll—is imposing, and their fast but heavy movements are menacing.

This probably doesn’t sound a lot like the rom-coms that most typically bear the “chick flick” brand, but it’s the girls’ camaraderie that drives the story. The men in the film are all villains—an abusive stepfather, a sociopathic psychiatric attendant/pimp, a corrupt mayor, and the lobotomizing doctor. The girls develop an all-for-one and one-for-all mentality, and when one of them breaks from that and puts her faith in the male characters, bad things ensue.

While the thought of seeing a chick flick has most men rolling their eyes and groaning, you won’t have much trouble dragging your significant other to Sucker Punch. The CGI filled fight scenes trump what Snyder was able to do in 300 (though there’s less violence in this film), and the empowered female characters jaunt about in skimpy lingerie and skintight leather.

The actresses that fill the roles of our heroines are all pretty accomplished though, and even if the storytelling is clearly an excuse to have a lot of special effects, the women put their all into the performances.

Even though Snyder relies heavily on computer-generated imagery in all of his films, he’s honing craft. He’s choosing actors who can provide meatier performances, and the CGI worlds feel more complete and less like you’re watching a fancy video game. Sucker Punch is a wild ride indeed, and I can’t wait to see what Snyder does with his re-imagined Superman movie that arrives in theaters in 2012.

© Kristen Heine, 2011