On paper, Prisoners of the Ghostland seems like the kind of wild movie destined for cult status. Sion Sono’s latest encompasses elements of western and samurai movies with a heavy dose of dystopian nihilism thrown in for good measure. The film could also be read as a treatise on the state of the world and its ever-dwindling resources. Plus, it has Nic Cage in a leather onesie with explosives attached to various sensitive appendages (“nice and snug” says the man who forces him into it). The whole thing is a melting pot of cultural references but, despite throwing quite literally everything but the kitchen sink at the screen, there’s nothing in Prisoners of the Ghostland that marks the film out as memorable or, worse, original. It’s a mess, and not a particularly fun one at that.
Opening with a thrilling bank robbery, during which each of the characters’ clothing is color-coded to match a gumball machine that, yes, will eventually explode in incredibly satisfying, slo-mo fashion, Prisoners of the Ghostland appears light on its feet. We then switch gears to a group of women fleeing a geisha house in a western town, but freedom leads only to some sort of dystopian wasteland that looks a bit like a discarded set from Mad Max: Fury Road. The wild west has long been a fascination in Japan, and Sono takes great care in establishing the central town where much of the initial action takes place. Suddenly, Nic Cage is in a literal cage. And here’s Horror Icon Bill Moseley, resplendent in an all-white suit like Colonel Sanders, with blood-red gloves denoting the literal blood on his hands. Spectators brandish smartphones but they never show up again – huh?
Just when it seems like Prisoners of the Ghostland is about to go somewhere fun, or at the very least interesting, the action grinds to a halt as Cage’s Hero (his actual name, according to IMDb) is tasked by Moseley’s southern-fried dictator, The Governor, to retrieve his missing granddaughter, Bernice (an underused Sofia Boutella). He sets out across the barren wasteland, stumbling upon people who, for instance, want to “keep time from moving” by holding the hands on a giant clock still. There are plenty of enthusiastic extras included in these scenes, which gives them a tactility beyond what’s afforded a mass of CG faces, but Sono tasks them mostly with shouting repetitive dialogue, little of which makes sense or is in any way compelling. Once Hero locates Bernice, hiding inside a mannequin like a shell of a person, the action seems to be picking up again but, once more, it soon slows to a complete stop – though it does give Boutella the opportunity to act using just one eye.
The main issue with Prisoners of the Ghostland is that there’s so much going on – the hero’s journey, Bernice’s dodgy relationship with The Governor, the unfair divide between the poor out in the desert and the rich living it up town – that nothing really connects. That’s before we even get to the titular ghosts, who feature so fleetingly they could’ve been left out of the story entirely without changing much at all. In fact, a crucial moment when Hero confronts them is so anticlimactic it’s genuinely baffling. The real villain, one could argue, is The Governor but Moseley – who’s reliably brilliant, even despite the southern-fried drawl – inexplicably sits most of the action out and it’s not even to build him up for a big showdown, either. Another character, Shin, played by Shin Shimizu, is so cool and stoic you’re just waiting for him to do something amazing. But even he gets sidelined.
Cage is having fun at least. The beloved actor’s over-commitment has frequently, and incorrectly, been used to exemplify how bad of a performer he allegedly is, but those who understand Cage’s approach know that his only real flaw is loving acting a bit too much. From taunting onlookers to stealing a child’s bike instead of driving the car that’s been provided to him, Cage injects his otherwise bland Hero with a fascinating backstory, hinted at only in his pained eyes and gruff delivery. Although he and Boutella play well off each other – in a nice visual contrast, she’s all in white, while he’s clad entirely in black – their relationship isn’t fleshed out enough that it makes sense why Bernice clings to him, particularly after Hero has essentially kidnapped her. Even great actors like these two can’t sell something that wasn’t considered important in the first place, try as they might. Bernice also doesn’t get to fight until the end of the movie, which seems like a missed opportunity given Boutella’s demonstrable skills in that area.
Prisoners of the Ghostland is strange and visually arresting, with conflicting images making a modest argument for why the thing is such a mess of ideas. The makeup and prosthetics are impressive, particularly the oozing black blood that jars against Hero’s gooey red stuff. Night scenes are lit by carnie trucks, but the focus doesn’t stay on them long enough to fully appreciate the effect. Likewise, a sequence involving cherry blossoms falling like snow is gorgeous but, again, the camera doesn’t linger on it. There’s a balletic swordfight that also feels like an afterthought. For an action-horror hybrid, there’s depressingly little of either. Sono’s film, which was written by Aaron Hendry and Reza Sixo Safai, shares certain DNA with, obviously, Fury Road alongside Ana Lily Amirpour’s underrated The Bad Batch. The key difference, of course, is that both those movies kept it simple, with a central figure for us to root for, a key task for them to complete, and a well-drawn landscape in which the action took place populated by characters we believe in.
Prisoners of the Ghostland is more focused on arty-farty rubbish – the sweeping orchestral score gets to be a real headache – rather than telling a coherent story. It’s worth noting that this and Pig were released just months apart, which is testament to the power of Nic Cage. Unfortunately, despite the fact Prisoners of the Ghostland appears to be the more exciting prospect on paper watching the great man chase after his lost pig throughout the Portland culinary scene is considerably more captivating than seeing him go toe to toe with Bill bloody Moseley. Go figure.
Catch Prisoners of the Ghostland in theaters, on VOD and on Digital from September 17, 2021
WICKED RATING: 4/10
Director(s): Sion Sono
Writer(s): Aaron Hendry, Reza Sixo Safai
Stars: Nicolas Cage, Bill Moseley, Sofia Boutella
Release date: September 17, 2021
Studio/Production Company: Patriot Pictures
Run Time: 103 minutes