I didn’t hate this movie as much as most people, and I suspect this is because I didn’t go into it expecting some Grand Feministe Epic. You can generally tell how seriously a movie takes it female characters by what they’re wearing throughout. One glance at all the lingerie and little-girl fetish gear in the trailers should have been your first clue.

So my expectations were pretty low from the get-go.

The first 20 minutes of this film are lovely, with a great opening scene done without dialogue that reminded me a lot of the impact of the opening scene in Antichrist (another movie that went immediately downhill after the opener. I suppose with great openings like these, a film has no choice but to get worse).

As expected, the opener addresses the sexual exploitation and abuse of women, a theme which is pretty heavy-handed to the point of ridiculous throughout.

Yes, terrible things happen to women. Thanks. Can we start the story now? Because stories shouldn’t be about the terrible things that happen to women. Stories about the terrible things tend to be fetish movies. Instead, the sort of stories we should be making are the stories about what women do when terrible things are done to them. They are the stories about the women, not the Terrible Things.

And perhaps that was some of the problem with this film.

When our protagonist is tossed into a mental asylum with a bunch of other “crazy” women for attacking her abusive stepfather (and accidently killing her sister in the process), we leave the world that is so full of promise – the perfectly setup plot pieces for her escape – and we go… somewhere else.

We leave the terrible, oppressive world of the mental asylum where the women are sexually exploited and abused and go into the free, happy-happy land that all women dream of to escape such situations –

Yes, ladies and gentleman, our heroine decides to fantasize that she’s been sold off to a brothel instead of a mental institution.

Because really, that’s the first place I would wish I was if I was looking for an escape to fantasyland.

First thing!

This is probably the deepest problem with this movie (well, that and the one coming up). We put a second layer of “reality” on top of the first that is even more horrible and exploitative than the first, but it allows the director to dress and treat his heroines as whores throughout.

Now, if you’re paying attention, you’ll note that the movie Chicago does something similar with a woman in jail fantasizing about being on stage. She fantasizes about being a star. She may show a little flesh, sure, but she’s got her freedom, fame, and most of all – power. Power over her audience. Power over her fellow performers. Power over other women who want to be here. When you’re in a position of absolute powerlessness, it’s highly unlikely that the place you’re going to retreat to is one of even further powerlessness.

In fact, I felt really cheated by this movie, because this whole whore-land completely covers up the “reality” of how our protagonist actually accomplishes getting the plot-pieces she needs to allow another girl to escape the mental asylum. The truly excellent parts of this film were turned into whores seducing men to get what they want instead of sneaky/clever ways to achieve their goals – the things they would have to do with far less makeup and far less sexy clothes on if we stayed in the mental asylum.  Remember how dowdy everyone looked during the prison scenes in Chicago? The director apparently just couldn’t live with that idea.

Sadly, this does not address the biggest failure of imagination in this film. In fact, because the third level of fantasy scenes are so wickedly awesome, this failure stood out as shockingly hilarious.

Our third level of fantasy scenes – the ones you see the most in all the trailers – happen when the protagonists are completing each part of their quest. In order to escape the asylum, they need to acquire a knife, a key, a map, and some fire.

At this point, the lazy writer in me knows exactly what happened.

The writers sat down and went, “Man, these girls are so screwed. What’s the only way they could POSSIBLY distract all the men in the mental asylum/whorehouse in order to achieve their goals. Hrmmm… hrm… well… we really need to get a draft together to present to the producers. OK, well… let’s just write in that the main character does this really distracting sexy dance. You know, she just dances sexy and it intoxicates all the men and then… the women can get what they want.”

I KID YOU NOT.

In a film with helicopters vs. dragons, steampunk Nazis, massive Ancestor statues come to life, and all manner of beautiful, intense cinematography, the only way the writers could think up for the women to get the quest items was to have them… seduce the guys in the film.

Vomit on my shoooooooooooooooooes.

I laughed out loud the first time this happened. The heroines starts doing this “fade to the lamp dance” where all you see is her sorta lamely swaying back and force in a really not-sexy way, then you fade into her eyes and get transported into the fantasy-land scenes where she’s battling big monsters for her quest items. When you jump back out, the heroines have magically appropriated said items while she was dancing.

It is the lamest hand-wave I have ever seen. And, reader, I’ve seen a LOT of them (let’s face it: I’ve also WRITTEN a lot of them!).

Just like the lame whorehouse fantasyland, I went ahead and sighed and rolled my eyes and went with the sexy dance hand-wave, because, you know, again, when you’re dressing your female protagonists this way to start, how can you expect better?

I did enjoy the third-level fantasyland scenes with the women fighting dragons and zombies to awesome remixes of cool songs. Why? Why would I enjoy this crap where half-dressed women kick some ass? Because, you know, this is all I’ve got right now. There’s no Aliens. No Sarah Conner. When the women are working together as a squad in the trenches, shooting steampunk Nazis while wearing probably the most clothes they do in the whole movie, I couldn’t help but think this was the closest I’d come to seeing my short story Wonder Maul Doll in action – a female squad working together quickly and efficiently, with that incredible group cohesion that allows small squads to take out cities. I delighted in that, because that’s all I’ve got, and sadly, it’s going to be the closest I’ll get to anybody taking whole groups of fighting women seriously for a good long while.

In fact, I held out hope for this movie long, long after J. did (he admitted to tuning out after the first 20 minutes, like most reviewers).

One of the reasons for this is because it is such a good idea, such a good story. It was like watching that trainwreck that was the last couple Star Wars prequels, where your heart breaks because it’s such a good story but so, so poorly told.

The best relationship in the story is between two sisters – whose relationship adds a lot of interest to the third-level fantasy scenes – but the most interesting one dies. And dies stupidly.

To top that off, the protagonist sacrifices herself too. Which wouldn’t be all bad except that she sacrifices herself to save one of the least interesting characters, who is nearly caught but then subsequently saved by a male bus driver. Which just about blew my mind, there at the end. WTF, really?

Of course, because we’ve spent the entire movie except the beginning and last few minutes of the end inside the mental hospital, we’re not really sure if this chick is really deserving of freedom or not. I mean, was SHE really crazy? We don’t know, because we weren’t given a chance to know her outside the fantasyland brothel (once again, yeah, the first place I ALWAYS retreat to in my personal power fantasies is a brothel, people).

What possessed these writers to keep in their placeholder “hand-wave hand-wave sexy dance” and send all the women to a brothel is just absolutely beyond me. There was plenty of opportunity to sexy-fy the women in the third-level fantasy scenes. We could have lived with dowdy mental asylum scenes that had the real characters in them, you know, the actual people we could root for and be happy they got away in the end.

As it was, all the men in the movie were sexual predators and all the women were sexually exploited. It was a black and white victim and victimizer world that that just fell absolutely flat. And it was a tragic shame, because it did have so much potential.

Tra-la, tra-la.

Gee, Kameron, why do you write the types of books you write?

Because of this. Because of movies like THIS.

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