Long story short...the spectacular Sucker Punch taps into the story cycle and story archetype originating with Alice in the world famous Alice in Wonderland(just "remade" last year by Tim Burton) and manifesting later in the heroine Dorothy Gale of the Wonderful Wizard of Oz...i.e. the young heroine trapped in a strange, dreamlike fantasyland. And just in case you did not get the memo, the costume and hairband of our heroine, Babydoll(played by the beautiful Emily Browning(damn, i have a crush on that woman!))is a nod towards Disney's version of Alice.
You can't judge by the typing, but that last remark was typed with a Chesire grin on my face. Sucker Punch not only homages Alice, but Dorothy as well...at least, imo; My reference for the homage comes from the 1939 MGM production, where, at the end of the film, after Dorothy clicks those red heels and return home, it turns out that Oz and her adventures in it were all a dream. Apparently, the movie creators figured that the audiences of the time would not accept the fact that Oz was real, even though that was the case in the novels. And in the modern day, it seems that some audiences and some professional critics can't make heads or tails of this movie, and lash out, calling it "bad". But more on that later.
The film itself, described by its creator Zach Synder as "Alice In Wonderland with machine guns"(although I would use Wizard of Oz), is about a young woman in the 1950s, known only in the story as Babydoll(Emily Browning) who, due to circumstances involving the death of her mother, her younger sister, and abuse by her corrupt stepfather(Gerard Plunkett), is taken to the mental institution known as the Lennox House. There, under the watch of the asylum's main psychiatrist, Dr. Vera Gorski(Carla Gugino) and corrupt orderly Blue Jones(played with despicable perfection by Oscar Isaac), Babydoll awaits her doom at the end of a lobotomy needle, courtesy of a underhanded deal between her stepfather and Blue. Her stepfather wants her out the way, to hide the truth about Babydoll's sister's death, and to obtain the family fortune left by her deceased mother.
This is where my MGM Wizard of Oz reference kicks in. Babydoll creates an elaborate fantasy world in her mind, where she is a dancer, brought to a brothel owned by pimp Blue Jones to be sold to the mysterious High Roller in five days(corresponding with her real world countdown to the lobotomy). There, she meets the rest of her crew: sisters Sweetpea(Abbie Cornish) and Rocket(Jena Malone), Blondie(Vanessa "Far from High School Musical" Hudgens), and Amber(Jamie "Making up for Dragonball: Evolution" Chung). When told to dance before Blue and her fellow dancers by the brothel's madam, Madame Gorski, Babydoll, in order to get over her shyness, retreats into a second fantasyworld, where she becomes an awesome schoolgirl warrior. In her first venture into this second-level fantasy world, she is given a mission by a mysterious sensei(Scott Glenn) to obtain five items: a map, fire, a knife, a key, and a mystery.
These five items all correspond with items in the real world, all detected by Babydoll upon first entering the asylum. After succeeding in her first mission in the "inner" fantasy world, Babydoll returns to the first level fantasyworld to learn that her dancing is so potent, that it causes tears in the eyes of Blue and applause from her fellow dancers(when she dances, she goes into a trance, her mind always returning to the second-level reality for missions, where she obtains each item on her list; or an alternate interpretation is that she views each dance as a mission to gain each item). Afterwards, she vows to escape the confines of the brothel(in the real world, this is the asylum) and asks for help from her four new allies.
And thus, Sucker Punch is off and running. As one commercial puts it, it is "Kill Bill meets Inception". I would probably substitute an anime title in place of Kill Bill, such as Kite or Blood: The Last Vampire; but the Inception comparison is correct and unavoidable. Both films play on levels of reality and dreams, and the blurring between them at various points. And unlike what most professional critics and some audience members would lead you to believe, Sucker Punch's exploration of reality versus dreams is definitely on par with Nolan's dream opus. Of course, unlike Inception, the subject of dreams versus reality itself isn't explored...but both are used in Sucker Punch to craft the journey of its heroine from start to finish, initially giving her the will to escape, and finally the mental and emotional strength to confront the monstrous Blue Jones(in all of his various incarnations) at the end of the tale.
Thus...everything, EVERY single thing in the film is justified, from battles with steam-powered Nazi zombie soldiers on the second-level dream reality to the fetish costumes in the brothel in the first-level of her dream reality. In the end, this is ALL taking place in Babydoll's mind, influenced by real world stimuli like orderly Blue Jones's sexual advances(seen, for example, when real-world Babydoll is scrubbing toilets and Jones roughly caresses her face, making her feel like a prostitute) and the various items around the asylum that she needs in order to make her escape. This is similar to the Nightmare on Elm Street series, where characters' actions and even dreams reflect things in the real world.
While the story is very sound, the special effects are awesome, and the battles, while not uber-creative(sharing another trait with Inception's somewhat stock dream battles)are...well, awesome. Yes, we might have a somewhat cliche dragon battle, but it also involves a WWI(or WWII?)style-bomber, girls with machine guns, and their sexy leader, a girl in a schoolgirl outfit and a katana. Did I mention that said girl slit the throat of a baby dragon and stole the very organs that create fire out of his throat? Yes, it happens in a dream within a dream...but it is still cool.
It boggles the mind why this film is getting a bad rep. This is an excellent, quality film, with a wonderful story that invokes Dorothy and Alice and their journeys through dreamlike fantasylands, but with a darker, more adult tone. Instead of the fictional folklore traditions of wicked witches, talking animals, and royalty, director Synder draws upon "folklore" and "story" characters relevant to our present culture...anime and video game standbys like dragons, Nazi zombies, giant samurai, and real world fears like evil pimps and sexual slavery. All is cleverly blended together in a story about a young woman dealing with helplessness by retreating into a dream world.
This movie gets an "A" from this audience member. If this is a bad movie, I want more please.