December 20th, 2009: I’m touring the dreams of a transcontinentally powerful man and he’s envisioning…blue men. And women. Avatar has been unleashed upon the viewing populace. Fifteen years in the making, a decade and a half of development, warehouses of cash…..and I just don’t get it. I haven’t even given myself over to the years of hype, and I still don’t get it. I almost fall asleep three times that day, even as my eyes are bombarded by the 3-D, Fake IMAX, Sensurround images. I want to like this Next Big Step In Film Evolution, but it leaves me feeling like….an adult in a room of caffeinated children? A giant cynic who’s lost the ability to suspend disbelief?
Now, on a purely logical level, I get why I don’t get. I tell the friends who I see the film with that my disappointment lies mainly in Jim Cameron’s squandered opportunity. Here he is, arguably the world’s most powerful filmmaker, the mother of all post-Titanic cinematic blank checks sitting in front of him…and he produces a stale riff on one of the most hackneyed plots in the world, with brutally stilted dialogue to match. (I flash back to 1997…I’m telling my friends about Titanic, which I call “tremendous”…I tell them how the storyline is really simplistic, but that if you’re going to make a film that expensive you have to dumb things down for the widest possible audience….I tell them that Cameron is one of the few who can do this and still make it work….my 2009 self slaps my 1997 self around a few times).
Now, I’m questioning whether I’m just being contrarian. After all, I still really enjoy The Dark Knight, and that tentpole buster features dialogue that in many cases is equally stilted. So that night, I pop in Cameron’s director’s cut of Aliens, just to see if I’ve been glossing over his oeuvre for the past decade….and I find an action/suspense masterpiece that might have a tough time drawing audience’s today. I’ve always preferred Alien for it’s haunted house in space theatrics, so it’s odd to remember now that Cameron’s follow up features a similar glacially paced first hour (at least in the extended version) that builds the characters and ratchets up the tension before the first real alien attack occurs. I feel somewhat more justified in my opinion.
What I don’t realize at that point is just how much of an omen Avatar will prove to be for the next year of cinema. Indeed, the 2010 filmic landscape turns out to be littered with tales of vicarious identities, personal reinvention and rebirth and the complications of this rampant bifurcation. We live in the era of the avatar, whether on message boards, video games or any other number of new age virtual reality experiences. The cinema of 2010 reminded us of that brave new world.
The Social Network and Tron: Legacy served as twin tales of technological escape, the former showing how a schlubby nerd could use technology to reinvent himself as one of the most powerful men on the planet, the latter showing how one of the most powerful men on the planet could use that same cyberworld to run away and hide in the name of empowering our own reality. The Leo DiCaprio double dip of Inception and Shutter Island both dealt with guilt-riddled men futilely running from their past by assuming alternate identities in alternate realities. Gaspar Noe’s Enter The Void did Avatar one better by thrusting its protagonist’s spirit and consciousness into the bodies of other humans, and possibly into a reborn version of himself. In Exit Through the Gift Shop, Bansky potentially created an entirely new identity for himself in the form of trash artist Mr. Brainwash, while Joaquin Phoenix went all the way in this direction by turning his life into a performance art funhouse for I’m Still Here. Even George Clooney got into the act in Anton Corbijn’s The American as the Leone-esque hitman looking to escape his crime-riddled life. And that brings me to 2011 and the curious case of Zack Snyder.
I’ve had a somewhat complicated past with Snyder’s oeuvre. It seems like I’m one of the few people I know who actively hated his Dawn of the Dead remake. I still feel that while parts of it succeed (most notably the survivor group’s tense escape from the mall through the phalanx of zombies), Snyder would’ve been better served simply making an entirely new zombie film with Sarah Polley and Ving Rhames, the better to escape the weight of rehashing a genre classic that has burrowed itself into at least part of the collective subconscious. After being bored and slightly disgusted with 300 upon its release, I recently revisited it to see if my feelings had changed. The second time through yielded a bit more appreciation for its apocalyptic visual style and heroic mythology, but from a pacing standpoint it still falls flat in the second half. And despite any active intention on the part of Snyder and Frank Miller, the film’s xenophobic overtones still bother me; like it or not, releasing a film about a unilateral war against brown skinned savages three years into the Iraq invasion is going to resonate in unintended ways.
I had almost given up on Snyder until the release of Watchmen. I’ve long been an ardent fan of Alan Moore’s revisionist superhero saga, so I came into the film version with some amount of trepidation. But over the course of two and a half hours, all of the visual and pacing tricks that annoyed me so much in Dawn and 300 completely clicked in the context of this story. Granted, Moore’s source material gave him an ample head start and the film sometimes slavishly devotes itself to recreating every bit of visual nuance from the comic. But for once, Snyder’s use of slow motion (which reached epic levels of overkill in 300) worked perfectly in the context of a narrative about characters trapped in a perpetual state of nostalgia, their lives only lived through the still images of faded memories, like La Jetee with spandex and muscles. Whereas 300’s use of mythic iconography was poisoned by its own bombast and suffered from an almost Brobdignagian sense of overcompensation, Watchmen’s treatment of modern gods benefited from the deep sense of impotence running through all of the characters; even when Nite Owl and Silk Spectre reassume their roles as conquering heroes, the fact remains that the sexual frisson between them must be sparked by costumes and violence, and in the end their guts and might are no match for Adrian Veidt’s analytical mind and vast wealth. Yes, the rejiggered climax still makes less sense than Moore’s mind-blowing alien invasion, but adapting Watchmen was always destined to be a Sisyphian task, so even Snyder’s partial achievement deserved some praise.
Despite this, I still came into Sucker Punch fully expecting to hate it. In an age where the Gospel According to Jerry Bruckheimer has spawned a legion of apostles increasingly pushing the cinematic equivalent of crystal meth to a seemingly ever-willing public, Sucker Punch’s trailer (with its generous nods to all corners of fanboy culture) seemed to be a glaring indicator of a filmmaker bound to push that artificial high even further. Give Zack Snyder a gaudy budget and generally free reign and this is what you get, right? As of this writing, the box office numbers don’t bode well for the film’s long term success, and it’s been receiving quite the critical lambasting in the press.
And that’s a damn shame. Because despite some overly goofy bits here and there (and that’s saying a lot for a film like this) Sucker Punch is an exhilarating visual experience, a tantalizing fever dream that marks the most complete realization of Snyder’s directorial vision yet. Warner Brothers goosed the Watchmen promotional materials by lauding Snyder as “the visionary director of 300”; it read as massive overkill at the time, but with Sucker Punch he finally lives up to that billing.
Looking back at Avatar, I’ve come to realize that my main sticking point with the film was how it purported to duplicate reality, but with fantastical enhancements. I’m almost apt to think that if Cameron had just embraced the head trip aspects of his narrative that it might have gone somewhere. And it’s for this reason that I thoroughly loved Sucker Punch, which makes no bones about the dreamlike elements of its story. It turns out that my worst fears about its nods to fanboy culture were true…but the wholesale embrace of those tropes is what makes the film an often stunning plunge into the pop culture detritus of our time.
Much of Quentin Tarantino’s brilliance is due to his deftness in reanimating genre archetypes into worlds with dialogue and plot that are often more complex than the films from which they sprang. But part of his mastery can also be chalked up to how he can evoke complex audience reactions to the characters, songs and plotlines. Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction struck a resonant nerve with anyone in their 20’s and 30’s who had grown up on Clutch Cargo, Kool and the Gang, Madonna and Silver Surfer comic books, but all of his films continue to find new audiences, because in this post-post-modern society even today’s teens have an almost unconscious identification with the pop fathers and grandfathers that came before them.
Snyder pulls a similar trick with Sucker Punch, although he almost completely abandons complex plotting and dialogue in favor of the pure, trancelike evocation of a subconscious dream. If you’re schooled in genre history, you’ll notice a Dario Argento-like dance rehearsal room (complete with day-glo color scheme and teutonic headmistress) here, a maniacal, murderous gang boss of a club owner straight out of a ‘40s Warner Brothers pulp melodrama there. But even if you’ve never seen Suspiria, you know these references because they’ve become so enmeshed in the cultural mythos.
The story of Sucker Punch is of one traumatized girl’s desire to escape a hellish existence through her fantasies (and then the fantasies within those fantasies), a retreat that in so many ways mirrors the audience’s two hour escape from reality into the fantasies on screen. If we live in a culture that concurrently values the role of the avatar and swims in a pop culture history, then Snyder’s film is like jacking into our collective subconscious. Hell, the film's opening shot presents Emily Browning seated in an onstage bed (an image that is repeated when she arrives at the sanitarium), so in so many ways we as the audience are collectively dreaming about someone who's dreaming about a girl who ends up dreaming about another life in which she dreams of a fantastical adventure...which is mostly set to cover versions of popular songs from the past! Hmmmm.....I'm gonna have to write more about this in the coming days.
I could pick Sucker Punch apart ad infinitum in order to logically defend its merits, but I’ll freely admit that my enjoyment of it is ultimately very personal. I have a sizeable soft spot for well-executed bombast, so combining it with the cultural and genre fetishization on display here is bound to appeal to me on a conscious and subconscious level. I’m likely contradicting a good deal of what I laid out at the onset of this essay, but the exploration of enjoyment doesn’t always make perfectly logical sense. And one thing’s for sure: it may go down in film history as a mega-folly, but Sucker Punch is one of the most intoxicating cinematic experiences I’ve had this year.