(CNN) -- Zack Snyder evidently had an awesome idea for a video game. But for some reason, he decided to do it as a movie first.
I mean, it's playing in movie theatres, so I guess you would have to call it a movie, albeit a sorry excuse for one.
Snyder has accrued some status with younger fans through his boldly stylized retakes on George Romero's "Dawn of the Dead," Frank Miller's "300" and Alan Moore's "Watchmen."
So far, the raw material has been distinctive enough to camouflage Snyder's increasingly threadbare bag of tricks: toggling between slow and fast motion, extreme close-ups and vertiginous long shots. He feeds back the kind of bastardized cinematic effects that comic books, pop videos and games took from film in the first place. It's a high-impact, low-return aesthetic that promotes a tawdry gloss above character and story.
Talking of which, "Sucker Punch" is Snyder's first stab at original material. And when I say "stab," I mean he prods at it anxiously with a long blade, as if he wants to make sure it's well and truly dead.
If Snyder has any call on the attention of a reasonably intelligent adult -- and on the evidence of this sleazy atrocity, that's a mighty big "if" -- it's as a pioneer of a post-narrative cinema, in which sensation and spectacle are paramount and situation is as fluid as a digital composite. Here he conjures giants, zeppelins, and dragons all in the blink of an eye. But are these things enough when they come out of thin air?
Clearly not, as "Sucker Punch" falls back repeatedly on the hoariest of melodramatic cliches.
And so we're treated to orphaned sisters abused and (in one case) murdered by an evil stepfather, who commits the surviving girl (Emily Browning) to an asylum and bribes the warden to arrange a lobotomy. All this within the first three minutes.
Browning -- known only as "Baby Doll" -- contrives a mental escape route into an alternative reality, a bordello/burlesque house.
But this, too, is a dangerous place controlled by rapacious men. She finds another rabbit hole in performing interpretative dance routines (which we never see) that transfix her captors, while projecting herself and her fellow inmates -- including Abbie Cornish and Vanessa Hudgens -- into virtual reality adventure game scenarios: a Shaolin temple duel; a WWI assignment behind enemy lines; a ticking time bomb; etc., etc.
On some level, these episodes are configured as empowering fantasies; the girls are pulling the triggers, after all. They're also heavily fetishized affairs involving high heels, suspenders and plenty of skin.
Kudos to Snyder (who co-wrote the screenplay with Steve Shibuya) for letting his imagination run wild. It's just a pity that imagination is so drastically circumscribed by the lurid "ho couture" culture of shoot-em-ups and soft porn.
In the end, what can you say about a filmmaker who thinks nothing of laying a cover of the Eurythmics' "Sweet Dreams" (lyric: "Some of them want to abuse you") over scenes of a man menacing two young girls? Or the Pixies' magisterial "Where Is My Mind" over the committal scene? That Snyder is unafraid of overstatement? Or that he imagines an audience as lobotomized as his benumbed Baby Doll?
See, the suckers here are the poor mugs who leave their dollars at the door. And for what? A seedy, desaturated, overstimulated simulation of a real movie. Schlock treatment for comatose gamers, and a bomb with a bright pink cherry on top.