When a movie is bad enough, it is a joy to watch for that reason alone. Mystery Science Theater 3000 scored ratings successes for season after season by exploiting this simple idea.
I never have seen worse reviews for a movie from professional critics than for Sucker Punch (2011): "two hours of solitary confinement, which feels more like dog hours" (Michael Philips, Chicago Tribune); "movie lives up to its name" (A.O. Scott, New York Times; "what happens when a studio gives carte blanche to a filmmaker who has absolutely nothing original or even coherent to say" (Lou Lumenick. New York Post); and so on.
Sliding the DVD into the player last night, I therefore was expecting unparalleled joyful awfulness. Besides, I didn’t like two of writer/director Jack Snyder’s earlier major films, 300 and Watchmen, even though these got middling reviews, so there seemed little risk Sucker Punch would defy expectation. My only concern was the smattering of critics who liked it, including Betsy Sharkey of The Los Angeles Times: "wonderfully wild provocation — an imperfect, overlong, intemperate and utterly absorbing romp through the id that I wouldn't have missed for the world." Was it possible that Sucker Punch would be merely bad rather than bad enough, and that I that I would go screaming from the room in agony because fumbling for the remote would take too long? I doubted it. There are always a few eccentric responses to anything, so I dismissed this minority view.
Sucker Punch wasn’t bad enough. It wasn’t even bad. No one sane will call this film great. But it’s not bad. Apparently, I didn’t see the same movie as the majority of the critics. I saw the same movie Betsy did.
Yes, as mainstream critics complain, this utterly surreal and beautifully shot film unabashedly exploits adolescent sexual fantasies. I don't think the trailers disguised that aspect. Lots of movies, many of them highly regarded, exploit adolescent sexual fantasies. True, the use of video game metaphors is far from original (see Scott Pilgrim as an obvious example), but how many truly original ideas are there in film? The more important originality, if any, lies in the way an idea is handled. Some critics and a lot of viewers complain that the plot doesn’t make sense. While I understand the confusion, the film really does make sense in its own dark way. The heroine's journey is not one that will leave you feeling cheerful, warm, and fuzzy, but it does have its own logic. And I didn't leave the room, screaming or otherwise.
Basic plot: wrongfully committed to a high security asylum by a corrupt stepfather, "Baby Doll" seeks freedom while indulging in two layers of fantasy.
The user reviews of this film on Rotten Tomatoes shows only 22% like this movie. User reviews on Amazon tilt the other way, but not overwhelmingly. At this writing there are 52 5-Star reviews and 28 1-Star reviews there (Amazon doesn’t permit a 0-Star rating), which together are more than the number of 2 to 4 star ratings. Many of the 1-Star reviewers are downright angry in their denunciations.
Accordingly, I don’t give a simple recommendation to Sucker Punch. Clearly, a lot of viewers – probably a majority – will hate it. Truly hate it. There is a sizable minority, though, who won’t. Think of this movie as Shutter Island (2010) meets the exploitation flick Teenage Doll (1957) meets the Nintendo game Zelda, the Ocarina of Time. If you like all three, and if blending them together doesn’t seem too outlandish, you might line up with Betsy and me.