As set-up: After the death of her mother, the unnamed protagonist (called "Baby Doll") attempts to protect her sister from sexual molestation by their stepfather. She accidentally shoots her sister, and this gives the stepfather a perfect excuse to bundle Baby off to a shady mental institution while he enjoys the inheritance left to the two girls. He pays off a corrupt orderly to forge papers so she will be lobotomized in five days. In shock, but knowing her time is limited, Baby escapes into a fantasy world where she and the other female patients are trapped in a bordello and a small group of fellow dancer/inmates agree to join her plan to escape. The interludes where they undertake plan objectives are portrayed via a third dream-level, in which the girls are machine-gun-toting commandos in a series of surreal, war-torn landscapes.
That Sucker Punch owes some debts to Sin City seems obvious, and my impressions of the depiction of female autonomy in that picture go double here. Instead of a political war for independence, we have a Great-Escape narrative, but in each case it's important not to allow the women's scanty costumes to obscure that their struggle is one for freedom: here, freedom from patriarchal and oppressive medical "treatment" meant to silence and suppress them. The decision to play out a similar parallel narrative in the 1985 Oz sequel was widely criticized as being disturbing: when faced with young women telling us things we don't want to hear, the system tends to come down with a cruel and patronizing force.
This is explicit in Girl, Interrupted, but the sexuality of the protagonists is downplayed here, and as Alyssa notes there's no romantic angst playing any part in the characters' motivations, or even their reasons for ending up in confinement. As befits an action movie, the desire is for physical freedom, to be procured through physical means.
And boy are those means physical! Part of my disgruntlement with the pre-release criticism of Sucker Punch was the extent to which the arguments presumed a male audience: Sexy costumes are just there for the titillation of the male audience; violence is there for teenage boys to get off on. But large portions of this movie are effectively video-game style action sequences with an all-woman cast of avatars. They are competent, human, kickass, and emphatically female---but they are not reduced to sexual objects. They are instead excellent vessels for the enjoyment of a female action viewer (and we do exist!). I speculated after the fact whether the choice to make all of the targets in the action sequences non-human was a deliberate decision made to appeal to women.
So there's the surface attraction. But what makes this more interesting than a simple shoot-em-up is the layered structure and what it says about coping and powerlessness. Much of the movie takes place at the middle level, in which the various girls are sex-trafficked workers in a club/whorehouse run by a mustachioed and violent pimp. The girls use their sexuality, via dance and charm, to procure various items necessary for escape. But this level of the narrative is just a proxy for what is really happening in the mental hospital, where the head orderly (the pimp) violates the girls in mostly unspecified ways. There is, thus, a lurking horror at Sucker Punch's heart: What terrors are inflicted on Baby and her fellow patients such that a fantasy of being imprisoned prostitutes (who at least wield sexual power, and are valued, if instrumentally) is a psychological improvement? What "real world" events in the mental hospital occurred to correspond with the brutal murders of two girls and the accidental killing of a third? And how horrible must life be if only through multiple and corrupted layers of distancing can women conceptualize their struggle?
UPDATE: Just saw this post linking to Sady Doyle's review. I'm still finding the hostility mostly misplaced. As one commenter at Coates's blog put it,
[Doyle's] analysis of moviegoing habits doesn't really add up for me. For one thing, it assumes that the primary audience for the girls-with-guns genre is male, and thus apparently has gotten more so since the 80s - which doesn't really square with my own anecdotal experience. Also, the rape-fantasies aside, it seems pretty incoherent to critique an action movie for putting its characters in harm's way - "When its female characters aren't fending off rapists, theyʼre being lobotomized, stabbed, imprisoned, sold, shot in the head, forced to strip, or blown up on trains in outer space." Isn' that basically what action movies do? The question for me would be how prominent the sexual victimization is, and; what kind of reaction - sympathetic? titillated? - it seems to be aimed at provoking from its audience.The leads in Sucker Punch are not Women in Refrigerators by the conventional definition, i.e. they are not killed or injured as a plot device in a story about a male hero. Even if you broaden the critique to include female characters who are injured and not returned to the status quo, the movie ends with one female character giving her life so another female character can be restored to freedom---hardly a clear case. Perhaps the dead sister qualifies, but she's if anything a plot device in a story about a female hero.
UPDATE 2: I particularly liked Alyssa's interpretation of Baby as someone who chooses oblivion. The fact that the ending seems to have struck many people as jarring or disappointing is partially a function of how it subverts our viewing expectations and partially as understandable discomfort with her decision to embrace her own "mental death" in order for her friend to escape. And yet her choice, albeit regrettable and tragic, is comprehensible: what remains for Baby, on the outside? Everyone she loves is dead. If she does get out, she will have to fight her stepfather to remain free (and may still go to prison), haunted every day by the memory of killing her own sister.
But the dignity of her choice---to embrace oblivion like a lover, and in doing so both escape her own torment and enable someone who still has family to rejoin it---would have been more clear were it not for the MPAA. Because depicting that embrace, within the dream-context of the layered narrative, would have involved a scene of consensual heavy petting with Jon Hamm, and the MPAA would only give a PG-13 rating to that scene if it was re-cut so he was taking her against her will. And Snyder, to whom most reviewers have been willing to attribute all kinds of sexism, didn't want to send that message.
Isn't this fairly strong evidence that Snyder intentionally avoided any actual scenes of rape (which is what the whole dual-distancing is about---when Baby dances and fights, it's obvious, at least to me, that her distracting sexual display/physical struggle is an escape from assaults occurring in the asylum, but this is never presented for our titillation) and instead wanted to show Baby's sexuality as something she ultimately owns and chooses to exercise? It's easy to put all the blame for the muddied themes on the writer/director, but the inclusion of this scene would have underlined Baby's decision and provided welcome contrast with the many previous examples of choice denied.