Amazingly beautiful cinematography and visuals. Kick-ass music that interweaves perfectly with the story. Very lovable, sympathetic protagonists and an overbearing, despicable antagonist. A strong and uplifting central theme. Stir all these in a pot, cook at 450 degrees for 110 minutes, and you get the wicked ride that is Sucker Punch.
The film opens with a silent, slow-motion sequence of Emily Browning's character and her sister losing their mother and then being assaulted by their stepfather, set to a slowed-down version of "Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This)" (think Marilyn Manson's version, but less creepy). Browning and her sister's innocence and vulnerability, and her father's menacing stare, makes the scene incredibly affective. Not to mention the terrific camerawork--closeups of a button torn from Browning's shirt as it spins on the ground, a light bulb as it explodes from a gunshot, and a winding shot through a keyhole and into the reflection in Browning's eye of her stepfather approaching her sister with bad intent. A harrowing and devastating start to the film, to say the least.
From there we're taken to the Lennox House for the Mentally Insane, where the evil stepfather plans to commit Browning. As Browning is about to be lobotomized, the scene suddenly turns from a grungy hospital room to the glitz and glamour of a stage where a similar scene is being rehearsed. We have now entered the first layer, if you will, of escape. Similar to Inception, Sucker Punch jumps back and forth between layers, but instead of jumping between layers of dreaming, here we're jumping between Browning's consciously-created reveries used to escape from her awful incarceration. But unlike Inception, each layer of reverie serves as a microcosmic metaphor for the layer just above it.
The first layer of escape consists of an exotic dance hall where the girls, that is Baby Doll (Browning), Sweet Pea, Rocker, Blondie and Amber, are forced to dance for their scumbag boss's sleazy clients. The girls ban together to form an escape plan, for which they must first collect four items: a map, a source of fire, a knife and a key. To collect each item, Baby Doll does a dance in order to distract a certain person so that another girl may stealthily pick their pocket. For each of these dances, for the first three items at least, Baby Doll takes us to the second layer of reverie, and each of these sequences is a fantastic over-the-top battle scene in which the girls, lead by Scott Glenn of all people, must collect the appropriate item from layer one.
Each battle scene contains amazingly choreographed fight scenes, gorgeous landscapes, and little snip-its that advance the overall theme unique to each battle (one scene is even set to a cover of The Stooges' "Search and Destroy!") In just about any other context these battle scenes would have seemed self-indulgent and gratuitous. But, in the context of a fantasy world within a fantasy world, where almost no sense of reality is maintained, these scenes work completely. In fact, just how over-the-top these scenes are actually furthers the idea of escapism from the horrors of reality.
Throughout the film the editing is top-notch. But especially in these battle sequences is the editing perfectly timed. In the third of these scenes, in which the girls are looking to steal the cook's knife, a snag occurs and Baby Doll is forced out of her reverie of removing a bomb from a train, and back into the cook's kitchen. Without good editing, the viewer could easily get confused as to what's going on in each location, and even which layer of reverie the movie is in at a given moment. Thankfully, the superb editing in the film allows the viewer to always understand which reverie they're watching and what is happening in that location.
Next up we learn that the boss, Blue, has learned about the escape plan after one of the girls snitched to him out of fear. While lecturing the entire dance squad about his power over them, he unflinchingly executes two of the main girls in a surprising fit of egotistical rage. Up until this point, all the violence had been very stylized and action-driven. These two murders occur at point-blank range with a simple handgun; no thrills or dramatic camerawork to distract from the gun blasts and screams of the dance crew.
Later on, as Baby Doll and Sweet Pea are set to escape, Baby Doll is forced to sacrifice herself by distracting the guards, so that Sweet Pea can flee. Once Baby Doll is killed in the reverie, we jump back to reality, and the previously cut-off lobotomy is completed. We're devastated to see Baby Doll have to die, but we're comforted by the idea that Sweet Pea safely escaped and can tell the world about the horrors that went on in that wretched place.
This conclusion, and the film altogether, forces us to ask the question, as the film does itself in several places, who the story is really about, and who are all stories really and truly about? I think the film would say that every story is ultimately about you. Even if you're not a post-feminist teenage girl stuck in an insane asylum, you can relate to the struggle in the film to escape a poor reality and create a better one for yourself. The film reminds us that we all have the weapons at our disposal to make our lives ones worth living, to escape any horrid existence we find ourselves in and shape it into whatever we want. We just have to fight for it.