The only review I gave this one was a little mini-review in my 2011 film wrap-up. It deserves more attention than that.
This film has a bad reputation, I think undeservedly. But let’s tick off the things that people tend to hate about it:
- The imagery includes a lot of brutal filters and green-screen scenery.
- It overuses the faux-drama that overcranking (or slow-mo, if you prefer) provides.
- The fetishistic costumes objectify women in a creepy way.
- The music is overwhelming and not period-appropriate.
- It feels like one big music video.
None of these comments are wrong, but they don’t lessen the value of the film to me.
First of all, 90% of the movie is a collection of nested fantasy sequences. The only “real” scenes involve the opening montage wherein the character referred to as Babydoll (Emily Browning) loses her mother, fends off a rape attempt, accidentally kills her sister to save her from rape and finally is dropped into an insane asylum to await imminent lobotomization. All of this happens in, I believe 1960 (or thereabouts). So using a filter to deaden the color is common enough for both films about the period, and films that take place in asylums.
Since everything else is a fantasy sequence, not using filters would be, in some sense, a little weird.
That opening scene plays out very much like a music video, with no dialogue, a huge amount of slow-mo, and a song (sung by Browning, by the way). In a traditional film, that would have been Act One, instead of just an expertly laid out three minute or so sequence.
Then, just as Babydoll is about to be rendered brain-dead… we smash-cut into a new setting, where the same girls we met in the asylum, and their keepers, are reimagined as part of a night club that, at the very least, enslaves the girls, and–this is never made clear–maybe pimps them out as sexual favors to local bigwigs. In any case, this new place is slightly less horrifying (since no one is getting metal spikes driven into their brains), but only slightly.
The newly arrived Babydoll (in a scene that parallels her real arrival) is put under the care of Rocket (Jena Malone), who gives her the lay of the land. Babydoll instantly decides to escape. And her plan involves distracting the men in the club so that her compatriots can steal various items they need for their escape. (A cigarette lighter, a knife, etc.) What’s super-creepy about this is that, once you think about it, in the real storyline, Babydoll isn’t dancing. She’s having sex with these men. And now, the fantasy seems to make more sense. She’s distancing herself from the act of servicing these horrifying men.
But the fantasy doesn’t stop there. Every time she dances, another fantasy sequence is layered on. These are the scenes that you probably saw in the ads. Crazy, insane action sequences. In these sequences, Babydoll and her friends (including Abbie Cornish, Vanessa Hudgens, Jamie Chung) defeat towering samurai gods, or zombified WWI German soldiers, or trolls, or robots or even a dragon. It’s in these scenes that the girls are all in super-sexy outfits that correspond in no way to the way actual warriors would dress.
I think there’s an interesting kind of double-think going on here. The fact that Browning is always dressed in a schoolgirl outfit, complete with short skirt and knee-socks could be seen as just pandering to the men in the audience, and in a somewhat perverted way. Or you could say that the fact that she totally kicks ass, wielding a sword and pistol, and never receiving help from any men other than occasional tidbits of advice means that she’s subverting the meaning of the costume, taking it away from men and turning it into a symbol of her own power.
I’d like to think that Zack Snyder (the director) is doing both at the same time. Which means that I, as a man, am simultaneously impressed by the action, titillated by the imagery and ashamed of myself for it. That’s a lot of levels of reaction to a simple costume.
But if that wasn’t enough, there are other levels of analysis you could get into. We learn by the end that the bulk of the night club fantasy sequences weren’t created in the mind of Babydoll, but Sweet Pea (Cornish). But, if that’s the case, were the fantasy-within-a-fantasy scenes created by Sweet Pea or Babydoll? And what exactly really happened in the asylum? Did characters die? Who did Babydoll have sex with to get the map? It’s all so twisted up and kind of impossible to unpack that it’s like a huge cinematic puzzle box.
For all those reasons, I really like this movie. I get that a lot of people are going to hate it. But what are you going to do?
Carla Gugino was in Sucker Punch with Emily Browning. Emily Browning was in…