VANCOUVER, British Columbia — It was mid-afternoon, but it already had been a long day in the trenches. The huge, drafty soundstages of the Vancouver Film Studios were frigid from the December winds outside, but Abbie Cornish, Jena Malone and the other stars of “Sucker Punch” were sweating through an intense combat scene, fighting undead World War I German soldiers who seemed to be part zombie and part steam-driven automatons.
All of it made perfect sense to Zack Snyder, the writer-director of the dark Warner Bros. fantasy adventure that hits theaters Friday with a surreal tale of multiple realities that speaks to Snyder’s passions and influences — Terry Gilliam’s “Brazil,” video games, “Pink Floyd the Wall,” the sexed-up sci-fi of Heavy Metal magazine, anime, music videos, “The Wizard of Oz,” “Star Wars” and probably five dozen others things.
“I think you carry with you all the things you had a passion for as a young reader and fan and then it comes back in the work you do, either intentionally or just through sort of the awesome and weird thing that is imagination,” Snyder said as he brushed a bit of battleground ash from his eyes. “You are all of the things that you took in.”
Hollywood is still taking in the 45-year-old Snyder, whose career stands at an interesting crossroads. He made his mark with the lush, sinewy visuals of “300,” the new-look sword-and-sandal fantasy that became a surprise box office sensation in 2007 and posted the third-highest opening weekend for a rated-R film ever, trailing only “The Passion of the Christ” and the final film in “The Matrix” trilogy.
Snyder followed that up with another comic book adaptation “Watchmen” in 2009, which was a middling success commercially and divisive among the fans who came to theaters with staggering expectations — the property is practically a holy text among the Comic-Con set. Snyder’s most recent film, last year’s animated feature “Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga’Hoole,” was a misfire; all eyes will be on “Sucker Punch,” which is Snyder’s first movie that is neither a remake — as was his 2004 feature debut, “Dawn of the Dead” — nor an adaptation.
“Sucker Punch” stars Emily Browning, Cornish, Malone, Vanessa Hudgens and Jamie Chung and presents a story of a young woman nicknamed Babydoll (Browning) who is trapped in an insane asylum thanks to the dark machinations of her cruel stepfather. With the aid of her fellow female inmates, she goes on a quest for escape. That quest is represented by fantasy battle sequences against dragons, killer robots, giant samurai and those creepy steampunk soldiers from the trenches.
On the set in late 2009, Snyder and his wife and producing partner, Debbie Snyder, looked especially calm amid the pressures of an $82 million film that is not especially easy to catalog or even describe. The director shrugged and smiled when asked if the elusive nature of the film and its challenging story structure made it hard to explain to studio executives. He said just the opposite was the case: “They’re like me; who wants to make a movie that everyone has seen before?”
“Sucker Punch” is very much attuned to young sensibilities of the video-game generation — the multiple levels of reality and the separate fantasy sequences that show the cooperating team of heroines fighting past obstacles to find specific objects is a pure channeling of the traditional gamer-world quest structure.
But the movie will test the conventional Hollywood view that young male moviegoers won’t line up on opening weekend for an action movie with only female characters in the lead roles. Prerelease surveys of potential moviegoers shows that film might have an especially soft opening weekend in the $20-million range — and that’s after it underwent significant changes after Snyder’s handing in his final cut last fall. Those editing changes included a new ending and the elimination of an implicit rape scene.
Throughout the making and releasing of the film, Snyder, who is a father to five daughters, has exuded plenty of fanboy enthusiasm. On set, as he watched his team of nubile commandos tear through that ghoulish squadron, he rubbed his palms together in satisfaction and asked, “This is great, right? I know this is a movie I want to watch.” He added later that witnessing his team of starlets connect with one another and handle the grueling action scenes was a revelation for him as a filmmaker.
“The level of commitment that the girls had and the intensity through which they saw the scenes on the page and how real they made the drama, that’s what really surprised me in a great way,” Snyder said recently, reflecting on the four-month shoot and the 12 weeks of training that preceded it. “I set out to make this crazy action movie, and it turned out to be a crazy drama in between all the action scenes.”
The women do all of their fighting in barely there outfits and dance for men in a sort of “Moulin Rouge” version of reality, images that some might find especially objectifying or even disturbing considering the film’s sexualized sequences of peril. But Snyder says his film is a commentary on those very things; he says the way women are viewed and the power they have within their own sexuality is the crux of the film, which is laced with themes of sacrifice and self-discovery.
All of that certainly resonated with Hudgens, who said that she left a screening of the film surfing a wave of exhilaration. “For me, after I walked out of the movie theater, my adrenaline was rushing and I felt like I just walked out of a rock concert, and I felt empowered. If I set my mind to anything, I can do it. I can control my destiny.”
Hudgens added that the skimpy outfits are not just catering to male fantasy, they also represent a particular kind of female empowerment fantasy as well: “If you imagine yourself going into these action situations, she’s not gonna show up in sweatpants,” Hudgens said “You want to be the best that you can be and be the most ferocious. I mean, the costumes gave us a sense of confidence and power. The way that I carried myself was different. And because we’re doing it out of our right for freedom, it completely makes sense.”
The wardrobe is just one component of “Sucker Punch’s” unique visual styling; the film has a desaturated retro-futuristic aesthetic that sets it apart from most Hollywood offerings. Snyder has made his mark with hyper-hypnotic action sequences and on “Sucker Punch” he worked with Oscar-winning production designer Rick Carter, best known for his collaborations with Steven Spielberg, James Cameron and Robert Zemeckis. Carter said that Snyder is on par with all three of those elders when it comes to his singular talent.
“I think he’s the real deal when it comes to directors, and I’ve been up close and personal with a few now,” Carter said. “What’s significant to me is that he’s from the next up-and-coming generation. My experience in working with him has made me very hopeful about the future of the expression of personal and epic vision in movies.”
If “Sucker Punch” is his most personal film, Snyder’s biggest career challenge lies in front of him. He is already at work on a Superman film that will look to revive the iconic property for a franchise that Warner Bros. is counting on as the “Harry Potter” series winds down and Christopher Nolan finishes his run on the Batman movies.
“Superman is the one constant in the universe,” Snyder said. “You know that if you do Superman right — or at least if you do him with respect — you know you end up with something great. … [But] in some ways [beyond] that is virgin territory. No one knows what that is. In some ways Superman is the most recognizable superhero on the planet but also the most unknown. Just what he can be. People have preconceived ideas about him, but probably all of them are wrong.”