Based on the trailer alone, it would seem that "Sucker Punch" – the latest spectacle-heavy film from "300" and "Watchmen" director Zack Snyder – has just about everything one could want in a fantasy/sci-fi/action film: Explosions! Firepower! Hot girls! Hot girls with machine guns! WWI-era fighter planes! Fire-breathing dragons! Swordplay! Robots! Speeding bullet trains! Giant samurai warriors! More explosions!
Of course, after being barraged with this "everything-but-the-kitchen-sink" series of candy-coated visuals, viewers may understandably find themselves wondering what, exactly, "Sucker Punch" is all about. Did Zack Snyder simply have a crazy awesome dream and decide to make it into an $85 million film, or is there some larger thematic point to the whole enterprise? The answer to that question would be "yes, there is a point" – and moreover, said point is in fact illuminated by the ornate display of special effects so heavily featured in the trailers.
"I think moving into the battle scenes, it's about…not allowing themselves to be objects anymore, and owning their own strength”, said lead actress Emily Browning, speaking to myself and a small group of other journos during roundtable interviews at the film's Los Angeles press junket. Sporting a short, reddish-hued pixie cut, the petite actress looks quite a bit different from the long-haired blonde sexpot – a.k.a. "Baby Doll" (a part she won after Amanda Seyfried dropped out) – you've doubtless seen plastered on giant billboards and in T.V. ads promoting the film. Not to say that the native Australian isn't pretty – only that she's quite distinct from what you might have imagined. It's an observation, interestingly, that ties in with the crux of the plot itself.
In case you missed the setup in the trailer – not exactly hard to do, what with all the whiz-bang imagery it confronts you with – "Sucker Punch" is, essentially, a film about imagination, and the capacity for human beings to utilize it as a means of transcending the struggle of their daily lives. It's a concept that's certainly been explored on screen before, but never, perhaps, in a film featuring this many miniskirts.
The story follows the aforementioned Baby Doll, a young woman who's thrown into a mental asylum after a fight with her contemptible stepfather ends in an accidental death. Faced with a life of confinement, she escapes into her imagination to deal with her grim surroundings and soon begins to formulate a plan of escape with four of the other institutionalized women.
The movie essentially functions on several different levels of reality, with Baby Doll envisioning the dingy institution she's locked up in as a glossy, high-class bordello where she and several other enslaved women serve as "entertainment" for greasy old men with receding hairlines. This is alternated with several action-packed fantasy sequences – each tied to an item the women must steal in order to secure a path to freedom – in which Baby Doll envisions herself and the others as kick-ass female warriors, battling all manner of larger-than-life enemies in a more fantastical version of real-life events. All while looking super-duper sexy, of course.
"For me, Baby Doll, at the beginning of the film…doesn't understand her own sexuality, and it's being used against her in this negative way in terms of [her] stepfather”, said Browning, speaking about the sexual abuse that's alluded to in the film's opening sequence. "That journey from the asylum into the brothel in Baby Doll's mind…that's why her darkest fear of being in this place becomes a sexual thing. Because that's something that she's been frightened of. [But] I think over the course of the film, she learns to own and control her own sexuality, and not be objectified.”
Seated next to Browning was fellow Aussie (and Charlize Theron look-alike) Abbie Cornish, who in the film plays the role of "Sweet Pea”, a tough-as-nails prostitute/asylum patient who's landed in the institution with younger sister Rocket (Jena Malone). Acting as the group's de facto leader, she's the character most wary of following through on Baby Doll's dangerous escape strategy.
"It's a strange situation that Sweet Pea is in – essentially, she shouldn't be in there”, said Cornish, referring to Sweet Pea's landing in the institution only after taking half the blame for a misdeed that in reality Rocket carried out alone. "The protection and the care that she has for Rocket is overwhelming, in so many regards. I think Sweet Pea's kind of squashed herself in that place. There's a survival instinct in regards to that environment, where she's kind of put all the beautiful things about what it is to be human, what it is to be alive, deep down inside her, and has had to protect the inner child, has had to protect the sensitivities and develop this really tough outer shell, to kind of stay in the hierarchy that she's in within that system.”
The quintet is rounded out by Blondie (played the very un-blonde Vanessa Hudgens) and Amber (Jamie Chung, saddled with decidedly the least-interesting character name of the bunch), both of whom are eager to help implement the dangerous plan despite Sweet Pea's protests. To prepare for their roles as gun-wielding sex goddesses, all five actresses went through rigorous physical training prior to production – Browning, Cornish, and Malone for three months, Hudgens and Chung for one (due to the somewhat less-physically-demanding nature of their parts). The brutal daily regimen they were forced to complete – which included fight training, weapons handling, and wire work – proved almost too much for Malone to handle in the beginning.
"I was the most unprepared; I had no idea what to expect”, said the leggy, effusive actress of her first day of training. "I'd never stepped in a gym before in my entire life…I was completely debilitated. I walked out of there and I started crying. I was like, ‘oh my god, I don't think I can do this at all!'”
Luckily all five girls made it through pre-production without suffering any serious breakdowns and, despite Snyder's reputation for using computer-generated backdrops, later had the opportunity of utilizing their newfound skills in the tactile world of actual sets. Though one could be forgiven for coming away with a different impression upon viewing the trailer, Malone pointed out that in "Sucker Punch”, the majority of what you'll see on screen was physically there during filming.
"It was 80 percent actual sets”, she insisted. "We had such an incredible production designer, Rick Carter. All of the worlds were actually there for us. We had men in prosthetics to actually be the orcs, to be the knights, to be all of the different elements that we were fighting. There was actually a castle that we were storming, and they actually built a WWI trench, and they actually built a bullet train – though that sequence was the one that was a little bit heavier in green screen.”
In addition to fight training, the girls also worked with a choreographer to craft a series of individualized dance performance pieces, which were cut from the finished film but which are briefly glimpsed during the closing credits. Allegedly excised for purposes of narrative flow (and likely for length), as described by the actresses these routines – which they maintained would feature in the director's cut on the DVD/Blu-ray release – sound like something out of a flashy musical number choreographed by Busby Berkeley.
"I did like a sci-fi/zombie nurse pole dance”, said Malone, also noting that each of the dances was meant to represent a specific item required for the girls' escape. "I started up inside of a giant syringe and sort of pole-danced my way down the needle.”
"I do a belly dance”, said the rather sedate Hudgens, wrapped in an enormous white robe and nibbling on a red velvet cupcake. "I got to dance with a knife. And it was a very spectacular Moroccan set with amazing veils and all this bedazzlement. It was amazing.”
As for Chung, you might look forward to seeing her dancing around in a "bedazzled French maid" outfit on the DVD.
In Baby Doll's case, while it's constantly alluded to in the film that she's capable of performing a dance seductive enough to hypnotize every man around her – all the better to steal the required items out from under their noses – we're never actually given the opportunity of seeing the dance. Instead, just as the young woman's hips begin to sway and we start thinking that maybe, just maybe, we'll get to witness a bit of the magic this time, the film suddenly enters into one of its many action-packed fantasy sequences. As far as Browning was concerned, the constant tease was necessary to maintain a sense of the dance's mystique.
"Someone [compared]…it yesterday to the suitcase in ‘Pulp Fiction'. You don't want to know what it is, because your imagination can always create something far more amazing. And then it's individual to each audience member, and each person that watches it, I think seeing the dance would've taken away some of the magic – especially if it were me dancing”, the actress joked.
Overseeing Baby Doll and the rest of the girls in the brothel is the brazen Madame Gorski, played by Carla Gugino in a dual role as both the reluctant female pimp (fantasy world) and a white-coated psychiatrist at the asylum (real world). Gugino, who's turning 40 this year but (typical of a gorgeous Hollywood actress) has the looks of a woman a decade younger, spoke about approaching the character given that in the film she's represented on two completely separate levels of reality.
"The two people I played very truthfully from their perspective, but I do think when you look at it thematically…Baby Doll gleans very quickly things about our characters, and then they are heightened in that brothel world”, she explained. "So each of us becomes more authoritative. Each of us becomes…she gives us more power, in a certain way. And I think that it's also an opportunity to see the flipside of these characters, where you see their alter-egos and you see…what [they] wish they could be on some level.”
Joining Gugino for this round was the stunningly handsome Oscar Isaac – looking almost like a modern-day Rudolph Valentino with his thick head of black hair and alluring bedroom eyes – who in the film plays Blue, a lowly orderly at the asylum who in the fabricated universe of the bordello is represented as a neatly-groomed flesh-peddler in possession of a violent temper.
"When you see him in this fantasy world, this is who he wants to be”, intoned Isaac. "Someone that's loved, and important, and feared as well…he wishes he was a matinee idol of the ‘30s and ‘40s or something, with a spray tan and with a little mustache, you know? So that's why it is kind of a shocking moment when all of a sudden at the end, we see him again as the orderly, and it's such a different…you know, he's pale and sickly-looking.”
It's this aforementioned idea – the ability of the human mind to effectively use the power of imagination as a potent coping mechanism – that lies at the heart of "Sucker Punch”. And while it deals with exceedingly dark themes – physical and emotional abuse, wrongful imprisonment, sexual slavery, and a host of others – it's a story that Cornish ultimately sees as a hopeful one.
"I think for Sweet Pea, that idea of freedom is something that she's disillusioned about”, she said of her character. "So that journey sort of into…of spreading the wings, of being able to breathe again, being able to feel again, connecting to herself again, is her journey. Speaking from my character, it feels like it was about that, about someone who went from…where she is at the beginning of the film, to opening and to feeling and to breathing.”
"Sucker Punch" opens in theaters this Friday.