Short takes: ‘Unknown,’ ‘The Last Days on Mars’ and ‘Sucker Punch’

April 12, 2020

By Matthew E. Milliken
April 12, 2020

Author’s note: By necessity, my review of Sucker Punch deals with sex and sexuality and therefore may not be appropriate for all readers. MEM

Dr. Martin Harris, a mild-mannered, well-to-do university professor from New Hampshire, flies into Berlin with Liz, his beautiful wife; in a few days, he’s going to make a presentation at a prominent biotechnology conference. As Liz checks into the hotel, Martin realizes that his briefcase is missing and hurriedly hops into a cab in an effort to retrieve it. En route to the airport, he’s knocked unconscious during a car accident.

A few days later, Martin awakens from a coma without identification or any memory of how he landed in a hospital bed in a country where he doesn’t speak the language. As he soon learns, he’s also bereft of his spouse and the life he once had. Liz insists that she’s never seen the injured man and that she’s married to a different Dr. Martin Harris. The doppelgänger has the same memories as the injured man; he also has the same souvenirs.

Even accounting for his traumatic brain injury, “Martin Harris” (Liam Neeson of Schindler’s List and Taken) can’t understand why some of his memories of his marriage to Liz (January Jones of X-Men: First Class and Mad Men) are so detailed. What’s more, he’s concerned that a man he’s never met may be trying to kill him…

This is the setup for Unknown, a very enjoyable 2011 thriller. At the helm is Jaume Collet-Serra, who directed the horror movies House of Wax, Orphan and The Shallows. This was the first of four thrillers teaming Collet-Serra with Neeson; the duo followed up with Non-Stop (2014), Run All Night (2015) and The Commuter (2018). Oliver Butcher and Stephen Cornwell’s screenplay for Unknown is based on Out of My Head by French novelist Didier Van Cauwelaert. (At least one edition of the book has been printed with the same title as the film adaptation.)

Unknown includes a number of suspenseful sequences and has a terrific cast, including Aidan Quinn as the other Martin, German actress Diane Kruger (Inglourious Basterds) as Gina, the immigrant cabdriver who saves the first Martin’s life; the late Bruno Ganz as Ernst Jürgen, a former security official from whom Martin seeks help; and Frank Langella as Rodney Cole, Martin’s oldest friend. Unknown is one of several movies, documentaries and television episodes that HBO is streaming for free as many Americans stay at home in an effort to contain the Covid-19 pandemic.

The 2013 horror movie The Last Days on Mars was the debut and to date only feature directed by Ruairi Robinson, who’s produced, directed and written a number of film shorts. You’re going to be all the way in or all the way out for this movie based on the following two words:

Martian zombies.

This is a taut tale of survival set on the very last day of the months-long residency served by the second crew of astronauts ever to land on the red planet. (Yes, it’s somewhat baffling that this picture wasn’t titled either Last Day on Mars or Last Hours on Mars.) When biologist Marko Petrovic (Goran Kostic) suffers a severe injury in a fall during an excursion that isn’t entirely authorized, commander Charles Brunel (Elias Koteas) and his crew mount a risky attempt to recover the uncommunicative explorer.

However, as they discover to their peril, Petrovic is… Well, he’s still kicking around, and he’s got a rather aggressive temperament. Astronauts played by Liev Schrieber, Olivia Williams, Yusra Warsama, Tom Cullen, Johnny Harris and Romola Garai attempt to keep their heads with varying degrees of success as the infection begins to spread.

The film is based on the short story “The Animators” by the late Englishman Sydney J. Bounds, a prolific author whose name was previously unknown to me. Bound’s tale was adapted for the screen by writer-animator Clive Dawson; this is his second feature-length script, following the 2001’s World War II horror film The Bunker. The sets, costumes and props look fantastic thanks to the work of production designer Jon Henson (Overlord, Hunter Killer) and art director Philip Elton (Event Horizon, Prometheus and Game of Thrones), among others.

The Last Days on Mars is a minor gem, and I’d highly recommend it to anyone with an interest in horror or science fiction.

Director Zack Snyder is known for making visually stylish movies. 2011’s Sucker Punch was his fourth live-action feature, after the remake of Dawn of the Dead and the comic-book adaptations 300 and Watchmen; this was the first picture he directed that wasn’t based on a prior work. (Snyder went on to make Man of Steel and two other movies in the DC Comics cinematic universe; he’s reportedly in post-production for the zombie heist movie Army of the Dead, which appears to be original, and is lined up to direct a new version of Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead.)

Until a recent viewing, I knew Sucker Punch by reputation as an action-adventure movie with a double-edged approach to women. On the one hand, the main narrative arc concerns feminist empowerment; on the other, the skimpy costumes of the five female leads offer up plenty of tender flesh for lecherous viewers to ogle.

I find myself siding squarely with the conventional wisdom in this case: Snyder, who scripted Sucker Punch with first-time writer Steve Shibuya, has created an ostensibly feminist movie that is primarily geared for an audience of adolescent males. It’s the kind of movie that I hate to love and love to hate.

First, the story. The lead character, a recently orphaned teenager identified only as Babydoll (Emily Browning of Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events), is committed to an insane asylum after accidentally killing her sister during an assault by their creepy stepfather. She has just five days before she’ll be lobotimized in a procedure that’s been illicitly arranged by Blue (Oscar Isaac of the new Star Wars trilogy), a menacing orderly who has an oversized influence on the asylum and its all-female inpatients.

Under the influence of medicine, perhaps, Babydoll hallucinates that she and the other asylum denizens are dancers imprisoned at a high-end nightclub that’s actually a prostitution front. She still has an ominous appointment in five days, but it’s with “the High Roller,” an apparent ephebophile. Everyone and everything from the asylum is present, but the people are dressed up much more glamorously.

Babydoll is determined to escape, and she recruits four allies to her cause, starting with the rebellious dancer Rocket (Jena Malone from The Hunger Games: Catching Fire) and Rocket’s protective older sister, Sweetpea (Abbie Cornish, who played the title character from the 2006 drama Candy). They bring along a pair of sidekicks, Amber (Jamie Chung of the TV series The Gifted) and the ironically named Blondie (Vanessa Hudgens of High School Musical), who function more as plot devices than characters.

Their escape hinges upon obtaining five things, as explained by the unnamed wise man (Scott Glenn of The Hunt for Red October and The Silence of the Lambs) who appears to Babydoll when she dances. Her movement mesmerizes the audience at the bordello, but she and movie viewers experience these performances as exquisite action-adventure sequences in which the lead character and her squad are commandos undertaking daring raids.

The true heart of Sucker Punch dwells in these set pieces. Snyder masterfully blends action choreography and computer-generated imagery as the women riddle zombified World War I–era Germans, orcs, dragons and robots with bullets — all while dressed in leather and lingerie. It’s genuinely entertaining, and thoroughly silly.

It’s clear throughout that Snyder is obsessed with The Matrix, countless elements of which he incorporates here. There are characters with varying identities who exist on multiple planes; several scenes featuring washed-out colors and oppressive rain; a seemingly ordinary lead who develops superpowers; and let’s not forget bullet time. Without giving anything away, a few story beats from the Wachowski siblings’ ground-breaking film are even replicated note for note here.

In the end, I was both drawn to and repelled by Sucker Punch, thanks in no small part to the main character. Browning is made up like a lurid anime character: Sailer outfit, pigtails and a sickly pallor broken only unnaturally rosy cheeks. Babydoll is vulnerable at times and powerful at others, but no matter which mode she’s in, the point seems to be to get us to ogle her.

Yes, this is a common fantasy of men; however, that doesn’t excuse grown men sexually objectifying a teenaged character who is ostensibly helpless. Yes, Browning was 23 when the movie came out. No, that still doesn’t make it OK. Yes, women can enjoy action sequences, and women can leer at attractive women, but… Ultimately, I think, the movie’s female empowerment elements here are subordinate to Snyder’s salacious gaze.

Sucker Punch is available for free from HBO during April.

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