Girls in thigh-hi stockings and tiny spangled miniskirts take on steam-powered corpses, WWI bi-planes, samurai robots, and an angry dragon, along with a series of odiously predatory men in the latest film from Zack Snyder. His versions of “300” and “Watchmen” overwhelmed the storylines with striking, provocative visuals. Here, he solves that problem by pretty much not having any storyline at all. He literally and metaphorically cuts to the chase. It’s not so much punch, a bit more sucker.
Baby Doll is a young girl in blond pigtails, framed for her sister’s murder and thrown into a nightmarish mental hospital by her abusive step-father. Emily Browning plays her with just two facial expressions, which I came to think of as “Mom said I can’t go to the mall until I finish my math homework” and “I really want to go to the mall.” The step-father pays a corrupt orderly (Oscar Isaac, in the film’s best performance) to have Baby Doll lobotomized so that she cannot tell anyone what he has done, and that he tried to molest her after her mother died. She enters a dingy lounge area called “the theater,” where a sympathetic therapist (Carla Gugino, sounding like Natasha from “Rocky and Bullwinkle”) is encouraging the patients (all young and very hot women) to re-enact their stories.
The rest of the movie is best summarized by the song memorably performed by En Vogue: “Free your mind and the rest will follow.” Baby Doll then either sees or imagines the hospital as a brothel, run by the evil Blue (Isaac again, in sharkskin suit and gigolo-style mustache), where the girls are forced to dance for the customers. Baby Doll has the ability to mesmerize men with her dances, which somehow turn into deliriously deranged gamer-style battle sequences as she and the other girls must, in classic computer game tradition, obtain a map, fire, a knife, a key, and make some unknown sacrifice to achieve freedom.
They could have had fun with this, but instead everyone acts as though it is deadly serious, and so it just drags. The other girls, played by Jena Malone, Abbie Cornish, Vanessa Hudgens, and Jamie Chung, are supposed to be tough but vulnerable, but they look absurd, racing around on heels in skimpy costumes as they fight with swords and guns, as though they believe they are exemplifying female empowerment and solidarity instead of parodying it. It is sad to see these talented actresses feel that they have no other opportunity for career advancement than to appear in this dispiriting dreck. A movie about finding freedom from that prison would be something worth seeing.
Parents should know that this film features graphic and intense peril and violence, both real and fantasy and mostly stylized, with many characters injured and killed. Characters use strong language, smoke, and drink and the plot includes molestation and prostitution and a lobotomy.
Family discussion: What, if anything, was “real” in this movie? What did it mean to say that the story was not about one character, but another?
If you like this try: the illustrations of Ashley Wood and Snyder’s “300” and “Watchmen”