Sucker Punch and the Art of Blockbuster Storytelling

In the world of schoolgirl robot ninja zeppelins, the story always comes last.

The blockbuster — that Hollywood standard beautifully realized by Jaws and Star Wars — has gone through an unusual renaissance over the past decade. The genre used to be defined by taking a simple plot and creating arresting visuals around it. Now, it is the reverse: our cinematic franchises are visualizing first and overwriting later.

'Sucker Punch' movie posterThis progression has been slow but strong, and it reached its apex last March with the release of Zack Snyder’s sugary disaster of a movie known as Sucker Punch. Snyder’s film is a two-hour roller-coaster ride through Snyder’s numerous masturbatory fantasies: Schoolgirls, zeppelins, dragons, strippers, samurais, bi-planes, robots and Gatling guns, with an incomprehensible story barely connecting them all.

Oh sure, there was an escape plot concealed inside a “dream within a dream” structure (think Inception without the skill or wit, and filled with Pixies covers). But try as it might, the movie could not mask its true intentions: To show young attractive women in tight outfits, flipping around while CGI’d objects flew past.

Not that there’s anything wrong with that. Not every movie has to be My Dinner With Andre, and I enjoy seeing Jena Malone getting punched in the face by a robot as much as the rest of the movie-going public. Where Snyder stepped wrong was overloading his story, connecting his brightly colored dots with flimsy logic, cheap dialogue and a climax whose “power of imagination” theme comes dangerously close to that of Disneyland’s Fantasmic.

And Snyder seems to be only the latest culprit of this cinematic mess. I am referring to the transforming robots, the supposed legacy of Tron, the cars of those who are both fast and furious. These movies seem to be suffering not from a lack of plot, but from an overabundance.

Perhaps the worst offender in recent years was Gore Verbinski’s trilogy death rattle Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End. Ninety long minutes passed, with another long hour left to go, and the movie was mired in the usual stew of battles, stunts and CGI, with none of the swaggering sense of humor and fun that had initially made the franchise successful. The movie had begun to take itself too seriously. The screenplay followed the “more is more” theory, jam-packing each page with plot twists and set pieces, tossing them at its audience at such a rapid rate that we were barely able to figure out the first double-cross before the next was already happening.

It is a formula that has been followed by the likes of such convoluted films as Transformers: Dark of the Moon, Tron: Legacy, and other Franchise: Subtitle ventures. Instead of letting the story dictate what the audience sees, it seems that the visuals are drawn out first, leaving the story to be twisted and squeezed until it hits every one of its marks. In doing so, it loses all cohesion in its mission to look gorgeous.

I long for the days in which the blockbuster allowed you to turn off your brain due to its joyful simplicity, as opposed to its labyrinthine complexity. Say what you will about Spielberg and Lucas, they know how to tell a story. Even with their modern misfires, they still manage to tell their glittery stories from a place of visual honesty. (Note: I just remembered the highly inconvenient lava planet from Revenge of the Sith. Forget what I just said.)

In the end, I have to ask myself: who are these stories for? The fan base for the Transformers movies does not really care what happens to its central human character, and I bet most viewers cannot even remember his name (which may be a benefit, considering that it is “Sam Witwicky”). Those who wish to be intellectually tested have an entire world of stimulating cinema to watch. So if you’re writing a cheap story no one cares about, why work so hard at it?

My theory is a simple one: Hollywood needs a period of self-study, in which it will (I hope) come to realize that the visuals should come from the story, not the other way around. They could watch Harry Potter and Christopher Nolan’s films for examples. And if you decide that visuals are truly more important than comprehension, then don’t bother with a story at all.

That might not be so bad. Imagine it: A 90-minute movie free of exposition and back story, in which a team of schoolgirl ninjas face off against a crew of rusted sea-faring robots, these simple beautiful creatures punching and slicing each other in the midst of a digital wasteland. It would be dumb, and it would be derivative, but it wouldn’t be boring.

Until we find a director brave enough to pour 200 million dollars into that avant-garde visual assault, I will continue to seek out the blockbuster that still knows that the human brain naturally, instinctively cares about a good story.

Article © 2011 by Jeremy Gable