I'll put most of this behind a cut, because I expect to ramble on a bit. But the tl;dr version is this: they obviously started with an ambitious piece of storytelling involving layered metaphors, but at some point got bored and just started tossing in whatever seemed cool at the time. (Edit to add: In other words, it didn't start as a "turn your brain off" action movie, but at some point they stopped trying and it slid into that territory, while retaining enough traces of the "leave your brain on" movie to be unsatisfying to those seeking mindless action.)

There will be spoilers behind the cut.

Okay, so here's the high concept, as I understood it. "Baby Doll" (that's how she's known through the movie...if her real name shows up, it's a blink-and-miss-it moment) is not having a good week. Her mother has died, leaving her fortune to Baby Doll and her little sister. Her slimy stepfather, who may have killed mom or merely married her expecting her to die from some condition, is enraged to find that mom's fortune goes to the daughters. He kills the younger and manages to frame Baby Doll for it, getting her committed. Since it's set somewhere in the 1950s, he gets her into a stereotypically dingy asylum and bribes an orderly to have her lobotomized. The surgeon who does that will be around in five days.

That's layer zero, "reality" or close enough. A rather confusing montage suggests that the main metaphor is constructed in an "Occurrence At Owl Creek Bridge" fashion in the instant before the lobotomy spike is driven into her skull. Layer one, a sort of cabaret/bordello, seems to be Baby Doll's way of coping with the nastier aspects of her five days of waiting. She and the other inmates are captive burlesque dancers, and it's implied they're also prostitutes, but that matter is always danced around. The bordello isn't necessarily any more pleasant than the asylum, but it's more glamorous and there's a bit more camaraderie.

Finally, layer two is the stuff that was in all the trailers and ads. This is whacked out fantasy combat stuff, and there's about 35 minutes of this spread throughout the movie. Layer two kicks in whenever Baby Doll does her dancing in layer one, and it's very loosely implied that these are times when in layer zero she's being sexually abused by the orderlies (possibly letting them do so as a distraction so the other girls can put the escape plans into place). In other words, the nastier reality gets, the more outlandish her fantasy world gets in order to escape from it.

In layer two, nothing she fights is human. Animated statues in the first sequence, reanimated steampunk corpses in the second, orcs and dragons in the third, chromesteel robots in the fourth. That is definitely intentional, a dehumanizing effect that probably would have gone somewhere had the movie makers not had a "Bored now!" moment.

Y'see, while that three layer approach could have certainly led to an interesting movie (modulo the acting, which was lacking in a few places), keeping it holding together kind of requires staying true to the layer zero premise. It's all in Baby Doll's head, delusions she has in order to cope with an increasingly unpleasant reality.

But as the movie goes on, the layer two sequences grow increasingly contemptuous of this. The first one works fine, no obvious anachronisms. In the second, the girls are carrying modern assault rifles and the mecha suit has LCD control screens (as opposed to Browning rifles and some sort of more steampunky control system), although most of the other stuff still looks like a sort of WWI-gone-too-long thing. The third gives them all modern radio headsets and makes the use of modern guns a lot more obvious, although at least they're traveling in a WWII bomber. And the fourth has them staging out of a definitely post-1950s helicopter and contains various other elements that a girl in the 1950s would never have been exposed to or have had reason to invent.

The music is often picked very late in the game, but it also gives viewers the first hint that the movie makers stopped caring about the framing sequence. Going into layer two is always accompanied by music played in-story in layer one, either on a radio or a reel-to-reel tape player. And we get things like a 2010 remake of "White Rabbit" for that music. (The remade Eurythmics "Sweet Dreams" playing as BGM as they enter the Lennox Institute wasn't in-story, and I liked the synchronicity there, by the way.)

So, I got the definite feel that there came a point where Snyder decided that the high concept was no longer worth preserving, and he just started tossing Cool Stuff into the movie in the hopes that it would make money. It's that, or he really thought Jefferson Airplane was an early 1950s act, and that bluetooth headsets have been around since WWII.

Would the originally planned movie have been good? Maybe. It certainly would have been interesting, especially if they explored the ties between metaphor and reality a bit more closely. The final scene has a sort of throwaway "What is real?" piece in it that could be explained as something other than a cheap attempt to handwave all the inconsistencies away, but it'd take a lot of work to strip away the cruft and get a good movie back out of this.

But Snyder pretty clearly stopped caring, so why should I?

Finally, since I expect some people reading this are on the borderline as to whether they'll enjoy the action sequences more than they'll be pissed off by the plot resolution, I'll say that the ending is one of "heroic sacrifice" rather than the "evil wins" ending that the movie felt like it had been heading for. So, if you don't mind that the framing sequence kind of falls apart and that layer one drags at times because the actors can't carry their weight, there's 35 minutes of cool action movie in there. And, hey, there's a lot of straightforward action movies that don't have 35 minutes of cool in them.
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