There is a movie about a girl in a hospital who frequently lapses into fantastic reverie, which turns the film around her into an explosion of pure spectacle, the kind usually tagged by joyless admen as "visionary". The movie itself isn't so much an exercise in style over substance, but style as substance, huge vistas of impossible imagery trotted out one after the other in place of successful drama. Of course, every word I said describes the already notorious Sucker Punch, but I actually had in mind The Fall, the years-in-production film by director Tarsem Singh that was completed in 2006 and slowly exhibited throughout the world over the next couple of years. It's not the only film one could compare Sucker Punch to - oh God no, the very opposite - but it's the one I kept thinking about, given that the films have basically the same goal - to stun you with visual invention, rather than to tell a moving, coherent story - and yet while The Fall is one of my absolute favorite films of the last ten years, Sucker Punch is emphatically not. But what makes the latter film so specifically awful is in no small part the incoherence of its plot, which is a charge you could make against The Fall as well.

How to reconcile this paradox? Partially by noting that Sucker Punch, though it ultimately doesn't care about its script, spends a lot more time focusing on it. But mostly, I think, because The Fall actually has the goods: it's one of the most crazily imaginative films in a generation, fanciful and painterly ideas captured with as little digital work as possible. It's crisp and clean, where Sucker Punch is ratty and tattered as a piece of used Kleenex, a gruesome mixture of every idea that everyone else ever had stirred up and dumped out, against a backdrop of distractingly busy CGI backgrounds, coated in a thick translucent case of digital color correction - though shockingly and thankfully, there is not a speck of orange 'n teal to be seen anywhere - collecting incompatible ideas in a rainbow of assemblages that were no doubt intended by Zack Snyder, the most stylegasmic of directors, as "cool", but end up showcasing such an... idiosyncratic worldview, it's hard to imagine anyone other than Snyder himself being completely entertained by a stunningly personal film that ends up seeming like a laundry list of fanboyish obsessions and fetishes. I'll note that there's more than one way to use up a piece of Kleenex.

For a movie that absolutely nobody seems to like, it sure does seem like everybody's been talking nonstop about Sucker Punch since it opened, so you probably already know that it's about a platinum blonde girl of 20 years (Emily Browning) who is committed to a mental institution by her villainous stepfather (Gerard Plunkett). Sort of. Claiming with any moderate certainty what Sucker Punch is "about" requires a fair degree of boldness, or perhaps being Zack Snyder; my experience with the movie leads me to suspect that whatever actually happens, it's buried so far beneath layers of coruscating bullshit that it cannot be extracted from the evidence presented in the film. But let's go ahead and follow along with the movie: the girl gets institutionalised, and then her stepfather bribes an orderly whose name I presume to be Uriah Heep III (Oscar Isaac) to have the girl lobotomised outside the usual channels. This, by the way, is the closest we'll get to an indication of a date: its when they still did lobotomies and mental institutions were great edifices of concrete awfulness that make Shutter Island look like Neo-Realism. So, the late '50s, maybe.

At a certain point, an orbitoclast is held above the girl's face, but the lobotomy is apparently stopped; I say "apparently" because that's the exact moment everything goes to hell. It is possible that the great majority of Sucker Punch takes place in the split second between the moment that the girl realises she cannot escape the lobotomy and the moment her brain is pierced, and I suspect that was the intent. But it's damn unclear if that's the case, as witnessed by the confusion all over the internet about who is which character at what point and who exists where.

The reading I'm sticking with is that the girl lapses into a metaphorical flashback of the events that have befallen in the five days that she's been in the asylum, which metaphor would seem to be a Weimar-era brothel for some damn reason. In this reality, the girl is named Baby Doll, and she is the newest acquisition of the sleazy pimp Blue Jones, the metaphorical version of the orderly, whose virginity is to be saved for the High Roller (Jon Hamm), the metaphorical version of the lobotomist who is coming in five days. In the meantime, Baby Doll joins the floor show put on by Madame Gorski (Carla Gugino), the metaphorical version of oh fuck it. So the floor show is for the enticement of the clientele of the brothel, and Baby Doll learns the ropes from four girls who've been there a while: Sweet Pea (Abbie Cornish, who should certainly know better), her sister Rocket (Jena Malone), Blondie (Vanessa Hudgens), and Amber (Jamie Chung). I would hasten to point out that Amber is the only non-white person in the whole movie. Gee, Zack Snyder, you're an asshole.

Now, it seems that when Baby Doll dances, she sends everyone watching her into an orgasmic trance, while she herself enters a fantasy world in which an old man (Scott Glenn) advises her to find five items that will let her escape the brothel. Which is a metaphor for escaping the asylum. Each of these items is captured when Baby Doll dances, and her four friends use the distraction to steal whatever is needed, which is represented in Baby Doll's fantasy as a fetch quest from a video game. Not literally, but the fantasy sequences she experiences, which are the only reason that this movie exists in the first place, are uncannily like missions in an adventure game, complete with boss battles.

Just so we're clear, the fantasies are a metaphor for a metaphor, which is the kind of accretion of detail that leads to every Sucker Punch review getting mired in plot synopsis: following the movie is enough of a chore that you feel obliged to show your work to prove you got it all right, like working a calculus problem. At any rate, it's not least of the movie's problems that Snyder, who wrote the screenplay from his own scenario alongside Steve Shibuya, seems to actually forget that the brothel-reality is only the middle of the movie's three tiers of representation, sufficiently vague about the relationship it bears the the topmost reality, the asylum, that it raises quite a few questions, chiefly: what is Baby Doll's dancing a metaphor for? Best not to dwell on that question, I suppose.

That is one shit-ton of a lot of work hacking apart a narrative tangle in a film where the plot isn't even remotely important, next to the spectacle of Baby Doll's various fantasies, and the omnipresent fact of five girls dressed in what amounts to themed fetish gear - Snyder famously would have it that Sucker Punch is a tribute to female strength, which he tries to jerry-rig by making ever non-imaginary male character a transparent slimeball, but a movie in which women only succeed by dancing so erotically that men literally cannot focus on the world around them is not precisely a feminist statement, nor is a movie that show how strong young women are by calling them "Baby Doll" and "Sweet Pea" and putting them in schoolgirl outfits.

So yes, the bulk of the film consists of slantways musical numbers: as Baby Doll dances and we don't see it (which I think is actually the one interesting representational choice in the whole movie, replacing the explicit eroticisation of the character with the sublimated eroticisation of her as an essentially depersonalised element of a giant tech-enthusiast circle jerk; so of course it's going to be undone in Snyder's impending director's cut, assuming Warner's doesn't slap it down), the film instead launches into those huge, trailer-defining setpieces, each of which is set to a different techno-pop cover of a song that deserves much better, taking the functional place of a song and dance routine, and even some of the formal elements thereof. Oh, the songs that get butchered in this movie! Opening with an unforgivable rendition of "Sweet Dreams (Are Made of These)", though that's not even the worst one: purists will wretch at the appropriation of a fucking Beatles song ("Tomorrow Never Knows"), but it was "White Rabbit" that really steamed my beans. Shorter: producers/composers Marius De Vries and Tyler Bates have committed an aural crime against humanity the likes of which even the court at The Hague is not equipped to judge.

There is nothing I have to say about those sequences, the heart and soul and only justification for Sucker Punch. They are loud, they are busy, they are filled with an amount of slow motion ramping that lumbers right into self-parody, they are blissfully clearly edited (choppy editing being perhaps the only widespread aesthetic sin Snyder has never yet committed), and they exist solely in reference to other things.

Part of me wonders if this is the new wave of cinema: referentiality and intertextuality are increasingly dominant ways of telling stories in Hollywood, and have been ever since Quentin Tarantino made his first big movie 19 years ago; Sucker Punch is perhaps an apotheosis, in that it is nothing else, whatsoever, than references to other works - including Tarantino's own Kill Bill, a film that knew how to do intertextuality just right. Perhaps this is the masterpiece of a new kind of narrative cinema, one in which meaning is only generated through the juxtaposition of disparate elements for maximum "coolness", whatever the hell that is, though I imagine that "cool" was the argument in favor of the robot samurai statue with the Gatling gun or the giant mecha in the trenches of WWI fighting zombie Germans. Perhaps meaning can no longer be generated except by slamming together familiar signifiers in new way, which is why one single film can crib so freely from Brazil, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Blade Runner, Moulin Rouge!, the collected works of David Carradine, the Star Wars franchise, and a hell of a lot of more elemental generic tropes from horror, sci-fi, jidaigeki, sword & sorcery fantasy, and video games galore - the most staggeringly obvious of which is Wolfenstein 3D though the last sequence, on a train, reminded me of a level in Star Wars: Shadows of the Empire to a degree that I'd have thought impossible for a game I haven't played in over a decade.

Perhaps that is the new way of cinema, and meaning can only be made in the arbitrary recombination of elements from other cinema solely in the attempt to create something with enough jolt to wake up the sedate viewer, and Zack Snyder is the prophet of a new way, and he and Sucker Punch, the culmination of everything he's been doing for five years now, are simply that far ahead of culture that we're all not aware of how forward-thinking and innovative they are. Perhaps that is the case, and if it ever turns out to be, that's the moment that I will lock myself away from humanity and never be heard from again.