The Nexus of Pop-Culture Fandom

Future Fragments: Sucker Punch and the Problem of the Video Game Movie

Written by: Anastasia Salter, Pop-Culture Editor

We’ve seen a number of video games turned into movies, for better or for worse. Usually, the outcomes are less than stellar–remember the Doom debacle with its moments of pure first-person shooter glee interspersed with utterly incomprehensible sci-fi montages? The watchable but at best guilty pleasure worthy Tomb Raider? The oddly cold and inhuman Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within? It’s definitely one of many trends in an era where the lines between mediums are blurring. The previews for Sucker Punch made it look like another in that same vein, despite its lack of direct game roots, and the embarrassingly low Rotten Tomatoes score is definitely par for the course for these types of transfers. But Sucker Punch is something different: a movie with the structure of a video game, rather than a movie that takes a video game and tries to force it into the box of a film. It’s even a film that can make us think about why we play video games in the first place.

Sucker Punch is not merely like a video game in its plot and aesthetic, although it certainly is both of those things. The battle sequences, Nazi steampunk zombies, dragons, orcs and other trappings are straight off the Playstation. Even the shots of real people manage to look disturbingly fake, and the resemblance between the leading ladies and every video game fantasy chick is hard to shake. But Zach Snyder is a director with a substantial amount of geek cred, and he deserves more credit than that.

The plot is simple enough, for all its dizzying jumping between layers of reality and fantasy. It’s the story of Babydoll, a girl whose stepfather has decidedly unfortunate tendencies and gets her institutionalized with the promise of a lobotomist to come in five days and permanently silence her. The slow progression to that date frames the entire film, even though we spend very little time with Babydoll in the institution itself. She very quickly restructures the world, escaping into a gameworld of her own creation and uses it to figure out solutions to her real world problems by breaking it down into smaller tasks.

The layers Babydoll constructs are different metaphors for her own circumstances. We spend next to no time in the asylum, as she reshapes the space with a prostitution slavery game layer that is an insightful match for the original. It’s the same physical spaces but with a layer of glamour, where the trade in drugs and “sanity” becomes instead a trade in sex, with settings that resemble the ideal of augmented reality games that could overlay what we see with a layer of glamor.

In this augmented reality layer, the same struggle persists, but in a different framework. Here, Babydoll is trying to escape before a “high-roller” can arrive and take advantage of her. The unscrupulous patient caretaker who agreed to have her lobotomized in exchange for money is in this layer a brutal pimp, and the well-meaning psychologist of reality is instead his helpless madam. The setting is already telling, and it certainly allows the visual look to move from asylum chic to exploitation chick-wear without so much as a warning. But, because the viewpoint on this setting is Babydoll, it also suggests a way in which she takes power over her world–and starts figuring out its rules in an effort to escape.

But there’s another layer, waiting a level lower, when Babydoll actually takes steps towards her escape. This is the layer triggered by music and, back in the “real” world, perhaps by a form of intense expressive psychotherapy–so in theory, this space is her deepest subconscious. It’s also the most problematic layer, an action-based video game in which the woman’s struggle is seen through a male gaze and overseen by a male mentor. (A man who could be argued to be part of Babydoll herself, though again–the problems in this movie go deeper than Babydoll’s psyche’s desire to dress like an anime character!)

The movie has many of the same problems as Joss Whedon’s show Dollhouse (the character’s name doesn’t help). Sucker Punch is, at best, a film that doesn’t know how it feels about powerful women. But that should be no surprise: the gaming industry itself doesn’t know how it feels about women. I’ve written in the past about just a few of the gender battles going on in gaming culture.

There’s a lot wrong with Sucker Punch, but there’s also a repeated refrain: you control your world. Babydoll breaks down a seemingly impossible task into a matter of collecting objects, taking charge, and evoking the image of herself as a powerful (if sexualized) anime babe with an arsenal of weaponry and skills straight out of Kill Bill to give herself strength. She’s making her life into a video game–because video games have bad guys that can be overcome, and obstacles that can be met.

Heather Chaplin wrote an article in Slate the other day attacking gamification, and even moreso, attacking the grown-ups who play games, saying: “Sometimes I feel bad for these gamification enthusiasts. Priebatsch longs to change the term valedictorian to White Knight Paladin. And McGonigal, whose games are filled with top-secret missions in which you get to play the superhero, says “reality is broken” because people don’t get to feel “epic” often enough. This is a child’s view of how the world works. Do adults really need to pretend they’re superheroes on secret missions to have meaning in their lives?”

Maybe not—although you could also say we’ve been living vicariously through “superheroes” of some kind or another since the very beginning of storytelling: there’s a reason we started with epics, with tales of gods and heroes. So no, we don’t *need* to pretend to be superheroes, but we do need to have faith in ourselves. Babydoll’s story is the type of “gamification” we do for ourselves all the time, recasting our worlds and our lives so our struggles seem manageable and yet significant, and so that our own ability to face them seems equally strong.

Consider this quote, taken out of context from the film, and instead imagine it on the opening credits of a video game: “Who honors those we love for the very life we live? Who sends monsters to kill us. And at the same time, things that will never die. Who teaches us whats real, and how to laugh at lies. Who decides why we live, and what we’ll die to defend. Who trains us, and who holds the key to set us free. It’s you. You have all the weapons you need. Now fight!”

That’s a call for a superhero if ever there was one.