The first four letters of SUCKER PUNCH sum up its level of quality pretty well. This opinion isn’t controversial, but nevertheless, the film has its defenders. Without being one of them, I can understand why – it’s the kind of bad film that reflects ambition and whose flaws reveal a lot about the culture that made it.

In a recent interview with THE BELIEVER, Paul Verhoeven pointed to Hollywood’s view of a PG-13 rating  as the ideal as one reason for his growing alienation with American film culture. I’m not sure that aiming for an R rating would have made SUCKER PUNCH a better film, but it might have made it a more honest one. There’s something truly perverse about making a PG-13 film with four attempted rapes, largely set in a strip club/brothel where the dancers are forced to serve as sex slaves. The women in SUCKER PUNCH are relentlessly sexualized, but the film can’t deal with their sexuality in any kind of adult way. I burst out laughing when one character criticizes the protagonist’s (offscreen) striptease for being too titillating.  Likewise, they rack up a high body count – in CGI-heavy action scenes that are initially exciting and enjoyable but eventually come to feel like watching someone else play video games – but their victims are all mythical beings, not people. SUCKER PUNCH touches on real tragedies, like rape and the abuse of women in the sex trade and mental hospitals, but it does so with all the gravity of a first-person-shooter game about blowing away zombies.

In theory, there’s something appealing about making a trashy, unpretentious version of the White Elephant Art mindfucks of a film like Christopher Nolan’s INCEPTION. But SUCKER PUNCH is so literal-minded that, in the wake of its big twist,  it has a character spell out exactly what parts of its protagonist’s fantasy life really happened. We’re a long way from the open endings of Verhoeven’s TOTAL RECALL and David Cronenberg’s eXistenZ.

SUCKER PUNCH has been criticized by feminists, most notably by Sady Doyle in THE ATLANTIC. While I agree with her accusations of misogyny and find something creepy about the film’s fixation on attempted rape, I wonder if someone isn’t going to come along and play devil’s advocate, suggesting that it’s a radical feminist attack on the watered-down “girl power” ethos it initially seems to embody. The film’s surprise ending deals a death blow to the notion that women can fight male abuse outside of fantasy. (The use of Bjork’s “Army of Me” over the end credits has to be ironic.) However, even non-feminist men should be pissed off that it also shits on the concept of satisfying storytelling in favor of sub-M. Night Shyamalan gimmickry.