A young girl (Emily Browning) institutionalised by her wicked stepfather retreats to an alternative reality as a coping strategy, and envisions a plan which will help her escape.

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Convincing escapist fantasy of girls, interrupted.

Those who found Zach Snyder’s 300 (2006) and Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga'Hoole (2010) nothing more than shallow spectacle will not be won over by Sucker Punch’s gartered-warriors fighting three-storey ninja behemoths. But for those who thought Watchmen (2009) compulsively entertaining and surprisingly resonant, Snyder’s gelling of wildly-bombastic visuals with empathetic characters makes his latest effort very nearly a major event picture.

From the first shots, when a purely-evil stepfather (Gerard Plunkett) frames Emily Browning’s character ('Baby Doll’) for the death of her own sister, Snyder paints every male character (barring Scott Glenn’s mythical 'Wise Man’) in the most unflattering light. From the villainous chief orderly (Oscar Isaac) and chilling doctor (an against-type Jon Hamm) of the decaying asylum that houses the incarcerated girls to the lascivious abusers who queue to watch the girls parade before them, Snyder’s men are repugnant, violent predators devoid of humanity.

Snyder’s women, on the other hand, are fighters. Baby Doll enlists four of her fellow inmates as part of her plan to escape their horrific incarceration: Rocket (Jena Malone); Amber (relative newcomer Jamie Chung); Blondie (Vanessa Hudgens, discarding entirely her High School Musical sweetness); and den-mother Sweet Pea (Abbie Cornish, rising above some earnest dialogue in a performance that clearly marks her as the production’s most experienced actor).

Baby Doll and her soldiers exist within the realms of the imagination – a place of both untold vision and faith in oneself, as Snyder paints it – and elements come together resoundingly. Giddying VFX sequences and video game-inspired first-person action show a director indulging his appetites for vast, detailed spectacle on an immense scale. Unlike most modern displays of flashy effects, however, they are infused with tension derived from one’s involvement with the lead characters.

The girls construct the foundations of a powerful sisterhood, despite the presence of personal agendas. Overseeing their manipulations is Dr. Vera Gorski (Carla Gugino, maximising her supporting screen time), a tough, damaged woman who fully understands the seductive guile and mystery that feminine charms can wield over the male foe. She best represents what Snyder is trying to say through his muses: Men should be careful what they wish for in their women. His heroines declare, 'Dress us to satisfy your fetishistic whims – baby doll, sailor, geisha, stripper – but in doing so you free our fantasy world, too, in all its potency.’

Snyder partially explored this theme with the iconic character of Silk Spectre (Malin Akerman) in Watchmen; with Sucker Punch, he fills his screen time with strong, physical women in full control of their actions, intellects and destinies. For some, it will be a far too malevolent (and dirty-minded) take on girl-power. But, befitting a narrative arc thematically steeped in abuse, violence and exploitation, it is perhaps those elements which make Sucker Punch so particularly empowering.