Zack Snyder explains the point of "Sucker Punch"

Sucker Punch goes inside an imprisoned woman's mind for a dark, surreal fantasy adventure. We asked the cast and crew about the fiendishly complex story, the fine line between exploitation and empowerment, and the horrors of steampunk zombie war.

Spoilers ahead!

Sucker Punch follows Emily Browning's Baby Doll (all the main characters are known exclusively by nicknames), who gets committed to a 1950s mental institution by her evil stepfather, who arranges to have her lobotomized with the help of Oscar Isaac's corrupt asylum staffer Blue. To escape her desperate situation, Baby Doll retreats into her mind, imagining herself the newest addition to a hellish brothel that closely parallels the institution.

In this imaginary world, she teams up with four of her fellow dancers/prisoners: Abbie Cornish's Sweet Pea, Jena Malone's Rocket, Vanessa Hudgens's Blondie, and Jamie Chung's Amber. Together, the trapped sex workers hatch a daring escape plan. Zack Snyder conceptualizes their efforts to escape by setting them in even more fantastical worlds, where the girls are ass-kicking commandos who take on, in succession, steampunk zombie World War I soldiers, a bunch of dragons, and killer robots on an alien world, all on their quest for freedom.

It's not exactly a straightforward premise, although Snyder stressed that people who are looking for just a simple fantasy action movie will be able to enjoy it on those terms.

His wife and producer Deborah Snyder noted that they thought of the movie's structure in terms of The Wizard of Oz, where the fantasy world serves as a metaphor for what's going on in the real world. Like Dorothy, Baby Doll can bring lessons from the fantasy to bear on her real-life situation. But the metaphor isn't exact: Zack Snyder said he took out a number of scenes that explicitly spelled out what the connections between the worlds really were.

Of course, that didn't stop the actors from speculating about how the movie's levels of reality all fit together. The actors generally agreed that their characters functioned as facets of Baby Doll's mind, and they tried to bring that through in their performances. Carla Gugino, who plays asylum psychiatrist Dr. Gorski and brothel choreographer Madame Gorski, noted that the fantasy characters cut to the essence of who they are in the real world, as seen by Baby Doll:

What I thought was fascinating is that Baby Doll sees these characters briefly initially in the real world . . . Those things she then takes into that fantastical world. It's the way the mind works with dreams when you have a strange experience but that night you're like, it was you but it wasn't exactly like you. It's that kind of duality.

Oscar Isaac took a slightly different tack, seeing the brothel version of Blue as the embodiment of everything his real-world character wanted himself to be:

Usually when you play a character you like to see the different sides, who they are and who they wish they were and who they're afraid they might be. This was an opportunity to really show that explicitly. Although it's through Babydoll's imagination, for my own personal work I imagined this was Blue the orderly's fantasy of what he could be: someone that is in control, that's powerful, that's making important decisions, that's loved and feared, and looks like a matinee idol. As the movie goes on, he loses control, and he's not actually able to possess Babydoll particularly in the way that he wants to — her mind — you start to see the cracks in the mask and by the end of it you kind of see him for who he really is or who he is afraid he actually really is, which is a pathetic broken soul.

A central idea of the movie is the fine line between exploitation and empowerment. Snyder went into some detail about why Sucker Punch is about more than just the girls looking sexy and kicking ass:

Everything in the movie is about a show within a show within a show. Someone asked me, "Why did you dress the girls like that, in those provocative costumes?" And I said, "Well, think about it for a second. I didn't dress those girls in the costume. The audience dressed those girls." And when I say the audience, I mean the audience that comes to the movies. Just like the men who visit a brothel, [they] dress the girls when they go to see these shows as however they want to see them.

But my hope was that they would take those things back, just like my girls hopefully get confidence, they get strength through each other, that those become power icons. They start out as cliches of feminine sexuality as made physical by what culture creates. I think that part of it was really specific, whether it's French maid or nurse or Joan Arc to a lesser extent [laughs], or schoolgirl. Our hope is we were able to modify them and turn them into these power icons, where they can fight back at the actual cliches that they represent. So hopefully by the end the girls are empowered by their sexuality and not exploited. But certainly that's where they come from, the journey is asking, "What do you want to see? Well, be careful what you want to see."

As for the stars themselves, Emily Browning said she was glad to show that a bunch of women absolutely can be the leads in a kick-ass action movie without sacrificing their femininity:

It was extremely empowering to be able to embrace both sides: the sexiness and the strength. That's something I think is really cool to see, that females don't need to be placed in these boxes where you're either sexy or you're strong, you're sensitive or you're tough. That's kind of ridiculous. Humans are layered, male or female, I don't think gender is even relevant when we're talking about that. We need to see that more for female characters particularly in action films because a lot of the time female characters in action films are completely one dimensional. I also loved the idea of physically looking like the stereotypical sweet school girl, I think Zack [Synder] totally flipped that on it's head. [Babydoll's] personality is not what you would expect. Maybe that's one of the sucker punches: you see this sweet little girl and then [with] her first line into the film she's holding a knife up to some guy's throat saying, "Let her go, pig."

You can see more detail of the movie's three fantasy worlds in the animated prequels, here and here. We asked Snyder how much thought went into the larger backstories of these worlds and how much they were simply there to serve Babydoll's larger journey:

It kind of was a combination. We talked a little bit about what these worlds would be doing in terms of what was happening before they arrived. I think the main thing was about the girls. I always liked the idea that the girls had zero to do with what was happening. The motion comics are all about this whole other culture, this whole other conflict, and all of a sudden these girls arrive and just start mowing people down. The trick was to make sure the worlds were complete, so you felt like if you looked over the horizon there was a society in that city where the train was going. So that was important to me, but on the other hand it had to feed into the girls entering the world, getting the thing and geting out.

When we asked the actresses which was their favorite world to visit, the response was emphatic: steampunk zombie World War I. Vanessa Hudgens, Jena Malone, and Jamie Chung explained the experience of stepping into the trenches:

Hudgens: The first time we got in our warrior suits in the trenches of World War I doing our tough walk.
Malone: They really built those trenches—the entire thing smelled like manure—with actual dirt and actual squibs going off. They're 10-feet high so once you're in there, there's sounds of shots and smoke and things going off. I mean, when would I ever be able to feel like I was in the trenches of World War I? Never.
Chung: The first time we got to see the set and we had our guns and everything, they said, "Alright guys, this is a warning, we're going to set off a little bomb, it's gonna spray a little dirt so don't worry, you'll be fine." We're walking down and all these bombs are going off and dirt is sticking to our lip gloss and eye lashes. I guess this is a part of filming and we have to make this look good.
Hudgens: The trenches were so cool. I remember looking around one moment during a piece that we all do together and seeing these girls in their ultimate, bad ass, confident state, it was just like, so empowering.

As complex and potentially confusing as the movie might be, Snyder said he let one simple rule guide him through the process. The rule of awesome:

For me, and I know it's having your cake and eating it too, but I start the movie on purpose with her on a stage and I say, "OK, this is a show." And all the rules of the movie are up for grabs. But I try to give you enough rules that you can latch onto something. But I don't want those rules to get in the way of the intent of the scene. It's like Moulin Rouge, where it's a musical and the exact rules don't apply, but enough of them do that the world is still consistent. I didn't want it to get in the way of things that are awesome.

Sucker Punch opens nationwide this weekend.