Sucker Punch has three layers; I'll label them as bradhicks did: the Reality of the asylum, the Outer Fantasy of the brothel/burlesque club, and the Inner Fantasy of the girl-commando team.
The Inner Fantasy is what lures you in to watch this movie. All those people who are not interested in Girl, Interrupted or One Flew Over the Cookoo's Nest will come watch a commando team of hot schoolgirls kick ass. Would I have seen this movie without those trailers of gun-toting, sword-wielding girls leaping over fireballs and going up against giant Japanese warriors? Heck no.
The film does not disappoint with the Inner Fantasy layer. A good half of the run time of the movie, if not more, is spent on these gorgeous, fully-realized scenes of Pure Awesome, where beautiful barely-dressed chicks carve through armies of robots and take on dragons. Where Scott Glenn reminds them of "one last thing". Where rock music pounds out its triumphant martial beat. Best of all, you don't even have to think about how ridiculous it is that the chain guns never run out of ammo or that the girls are wearing high-heels and thigh-highs to fight in a war zone. It's a mad girl's fantasy. Of course it's not realistic.
Outer Fantasy is a thin layer wrapped around the Inner Fantasy. The Outer Fantasy layer is also filled with beautiful imagery: an impeccable club, owner and clientele in tailored suits, dancers in alluring costumes, makeup, false eyelashes an inch long. But for all that prettiness, the Outer Fantasy is grotesque: orphaned girls forced into prostitution by a malevolent pimp who brutally murders two of them for plotting to escape.
Reality is the thinnest layer of all. It is grim and ugly, both in appearance and deed: a man abuses his stepdaughters and commits the surviving one to an insane asylum, where he bribes an orderly to have her lobotomized.
When I was watching the movie, I was wondering why the Outer Fantasy layer existed. Why have a layer of brutality separate from the brutality of reality? The obvious answer is "visual appeal". Most of the narrative develops on the Outer Fantasy layer. This is where you meet Baby Doll's fellow patients, this is where they plan their escape, this is where they endure the humiliations and brutality of their imprisoners. If this layer showed Reality, it would look ugly. The girls would wear insitutional clothing, the orderlies would wear scrubs, the walls would be grey and unadorned, and the whole thing would be grim in look as well as feel. By coating it in the Outer Fantasy of the brothel, the scenes offer the viewers eyecandy to make sure their attention doesn't wane. This layer adds sex appeal -- and sexual fear, with the omnipresent threat of rape -- that would otherwise be diminished in mere reality. The mechanism by which Baby Doll distracts the abusers on the Outer Fantasy layer is streamlined and simplified: she mesmerizes them with her dance. Whatever she's doing in reality would require more explanation and/or be far more traumatic for both character and viewer.*
But that's the producer's motive: "how do we sell more tickets?" But how is Outer Fantasy explained by the story? Why does Baby Doll, already under the threat of lobotomy, conjure up such a grim fantasy environment? Unlike Inner Fantasy, the Outer Fantasy offers no sense of empowerment or hope.
One reason that comes to mind: her mind is trying to construct a world that makes sense. In reality, the people who should be helping and protecting her -- her stepfather and the orderly -- are instead conspiring to destroy her. This is clearly insane. Outer Fantasy, where orphans and runaways are forced into prostitution, is perhaps more rational. Their families are absent, not actively trying to destroy them, and the men with power over them are profiting directly from their abuse, not just doing it because they can. Assuming Baby Doll did accidentally kill her sister, Outer Fantasy may also be her way of escaping the guilt of that.
Whatever the reason, the frame story that shapes both Reality and Outer Fantasy is a miserable one. The girls are disempowered, physically abused, sexually harassed and arguably raped. I say "arguably raped" because the film is strangely coy on this point. Rape is intrinsic to Outer Fantasy -- the girls are forced prostitutes -- although no actual rapes take place on-camera or even explicitly off-camera (you never see a girl going with a client into one of the bedrooms, for instance). There are scenes with strong sexual overtones: the Chef assaults Rocket and is on top of her when Baby Doll comes to the rescue; Baby Doll stabs Mr. Blue when he threatens to rape her. In Reality, the stepfather may be intending to rape Baby Doll or her sister, or he may be planning to beat them, or he may have actually killed Baby Doll's younger sister -- it's simply not clear from what's actually shown. Likewise, one of the orderlies tells Blue "I'm not going to help you hurt girls any more", which may be code for rape but is not explicit. It is pretty clear that Blue intended to rape Baby Doll when he got her alone, and it's reasonable to assume that Blue's stab wound in Reality reflected an attempted rape as well. The strongest evidence of sexual abuse is the fact that the fantasy layers are so sexualized; it's hard to imagine Baby Doll inventing such a scenario if she were not a rape victim.
Regardless of the extent of the abuse, every male is portrayed as powerful and malevolent (except the Wise Man/busdriver, who is perhaps too old to be regarded as threatening). The implication is "Every woman is helpless and every man a rapist". In Inner Fantasy, the women are powerful: they can fly through the air, leap over giants, dodge fireballs, slay dragons. But in Reality, the insurmountable odds are too much, and only one out of five can make it out intact. The ending is bittersweet at best: one protagonist is lobotomized and the fate of three are unknown; the last gets away, but her fate after escape is unclear. Blue's duplicity is discovered in Reality, and as he's hauled away he incriminates the stepfather as well.
That's the thing I keep coming back to: at its heart, the film has a message of "violence and the exploitation and dehumanization of women is a terrible thing done by terrible people." But the film itself is dressing women up in ridiculous outfits and showing them in absurd, impossible combat scenes. It feels a little like making a movie about how badly the porn industry treats women, and filling it with explicit sex scenes to make sure the target market will come watch it. Because if your message is "porn is bad", the people you really want to reach are porn viewers, right?
Of course, fan service outifits and over-the-top action don't equate to justifying rape, lobotomies, forced prostitution, or violence against women. You could make a reasonable case that high heels, bustiers, and anime fight scenes are not innately bad things. They are, however, interests that overlap with some people who hold skeevy beliefs.
And that's the brilliance of the film. It may actually reach its intended audience, and when the message underneath all those awesome anime fight scenes penetrates, maybe they'll feel sucker-punched too.
* This blog post suggests that the distraction in Reality consists of repeated rapes of Baby Doll, which is the certainly the grisliest interpretation. The film shows little enough of Reality that it's arguably the correct one, but I'm inclined to think that Baby Doll's distractions are more like the outburst between two girls that she witnessed at her arrival -- if only because everything else in the arrival scene reflects her eventual escape plan.