Double Feature: Seven Days in Utopia and Sucker Punch

DISCLAIMER: I don’t recommend either of these films. This will be a rant. The juxtaposition is primarily intended, I confess, for shock value, although I believe the similarities between these two films are legitimate. Also, I happened to watch both within a few weeks of each other; such is the strange, in-between period of my life right now. This is not a suggestion for an actual “double feature,” but, having used that format already, I think it will become a regular topic in this space — a discussion of two films at once, and how they relate to each other. Something can always be learned from failure, and I hope to shed some light on why I think these movies fail.

Two films with more disparate aesthetics, subject matter, and tone you may never find, but they are similar in one crucial respect: neither is about what it wants to be about, or what it wants its audience to remember it as being about. In a word, both films cheat. They open with a problem and then spend much of their running times avoiding that problem. In so doing, they deliberately sidestep the dramatic weight that would make them worthwhile. No film is as disappointing as one that fails to deliver on its opening scene.

Anything but golf…

Seven Days in Utopia is a golf movie, a genre with several representatives, even though golf is not and never has been a cinematic sport. It’s a sport of internal conflict, quiet strategy, and above all, stillness. One must reduce the sport to metaphor in order to convey something meaningful about it to a mass audience. Probably the most glaring flaw in this film is its obvious attempt to fill its space with anything but golf to keep the audience interested. Methods to improve the player’s game include: washer-tossing, piloting an airplane, fly fishing, and painting. One must seemingly master every endeavor that mankind has attempted if one wants to play golf well. Doesn’t that sound like fun? Even when the time comes for the golfer, Luke Chisholm (played by Lucas Black) to play golf again, the film gives us a thunderstorm to complicate matters. Here’s a fun exercise: take any scene in movie history and imagine it taking place in the rain. It immediately becomes more interesting.

An angelic beam of light on the old golfer…

But these are trivial, albeit irritating, matters. The film sidesteps its story in a more fundamental way. It becomes apparent very early on that Luke Chisholm is a fine golfer. His lack of serious struggle to play the game is a flaw of the film. But it also shows that golf is not his problem; every great golfer has bad days and meltdowns. The problem is his relationship with his father. So why isn’t this movie about Luke’s relationship with his father? Perhaps because that relationship is a cliche, but this film is loaded with cliches anyway. The film just takes the easy, uplifting way out. Admittedly, I didn’t have high expectations for this film going in; the critics had pounded it. But I enjoyed the editing of the early flashback sequence, wherein Luke collapses in the big tournament. Unfortunately, instead of building on that theme, that emotion, the film just repeats it a few more times before dispensing with its own real subject to allow Robert Duvall to give us a few platitudes. Nothing in this film is rendered believably, let alone poignantly, although it had the potential to do so. The closing message is that there are more important things in life than sports. Don’t count on a sports movie to convey that message effectively.

This is the film’s setting, but that’s easy to forget…

Sucker Punch is the first film Zack Snyder has made from an original story of his, although it still feels like a comic book adaptation. Here, what the movie is actually about is the abuse of young women confined to a mental institution. Whether any of them actually belongs there is never addressed, because, again, the movie tries to be about something else. (The main character [or at least the character who dominates most of the story] is wrongly confined there, so it’s not unthinkable that the others are as well.) But this time, the escapism is much more overt: the film is packed with fantasy sequences, and fantasy sequences within fantasy sequences. Almost none of the film is actually set in the mental institution.

Hey, I just noticed Scott Glenn in this shot for the first time…

Here’s the gist of what’s wrong with Sucker Punch: although Snyder has claimed his film is a critique of sexism and “chixploitation,” that message, if it’s there at all, isn’t communicated well enough. The film isn’t subtle enough to have that much subtext. It’s the same trap that many filmmakers fall into who want to make something that’s anti-violence or anti-war. They fail to consistently condemn something that they clearly find interesting. Regardless of whether this film is its own worst critic, though, it simply fails to grab the audience. The opening sequence, to me, is a microcosm of the movie as a whole. The exposition that brings Baby Doll (played by Emily Browning) to the mental institution is done as a silent film — no dialogue. This is brilliant; Snyder is very capable of telling a story with images. But I feel like the sequence goes on too long.  It’s ultra-stylized, and the tension builds past the point of ridiculousness, at which point the audience gets self-conscious. The whole film is like this. Any ten minutes or so, taken by itself, is very well done. But the film has almost no dramatic development. Each fantasy battle sequence starts to feel just like the one that came before it. Add to that the fact that each battle is a fantasy within a fantasy, and the drama is practically nonexistent. This film fits nicely in the category of interesting ideas that failed in the execution.

So what’s the lesson of these two films? Making a good movie is hard. But a bad movie is not nearly as hard to watch as a movie with wasted potential. Great talent was involved in both of these movies, whether it was the acting genius of Robert Duvall or the visual ingenuity of Zack Snyder. These are two cases, though, of genuine drama being sacrificed for the sake of easy entertainment. A story of father-son conflict, or of the physical and mental abuse of women, is always worth telling, but it takes courage and skill. Just because these movies fail, though, doesn’t mean we can’t learn from them. It’s how you play the game that counts, after all. I’m surprised to recall that I don’t think Scott Glenn ever says that in Sucker Punch.

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