Prisoners of the Ghostland, the English language debut of Japanese director Sion Sono, works in two ways. First, it works as an elevator pitch. The film’s simple, captivating concept quickly grabs your attention. It also works as a fever dream. An impressive collection of cool visuals and sequences that don’t really go together, but you’ll watch it anyway. Somewhere in between those two things should be an actual movie, but, unfortunately, that isn’t quite the case.
In the film, which had its world premiere this weekend at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival, Nicolas Cage plays a character referred to only as Hero. Hero, well, isn’t one really—he’s a bank robber who is imprisoned after a job goes horribly wrong. A ruthless governor (Bill Moseley) lets him out though when the governor’s daughter Bernice (Sofia Boutella) is kidnapped. Hero must venture into a haunted, dangerous wasteland to find her and win his freedom before a deadly bomb suit the governor made him wear goes off.
Which sounds awesome, right? A wild idea for a movie—especially one starring Cage. The problem is very quickly the film loses any sense of focus. Sono has created a world devoid of place or time. There are samurai walking around, but everyone has cell phones and the streets are lined with neon signs. Inside a bank, everything is clean, white, and people are wearing suits. Outside of town, people wear chains, rubber, and plastic doll parts. At one point a rather vague explanation for the disparity is given (something about a nuclear explosion) but it’s not enough to create a solid foundation. It’s all just kind of there.
The same can be said for Hero. We’re told he’s one of the most dangerous men on the planet but, even with Cage’s undeniable charisma, we don’t get that sense. He punches a few guys and acts really tough but his actions seem incredibly random. To keep the story going, he finds Bernice very easily which is when the film takes a detour from the main plot into something very different, and becomes more focused on the culture of Ghostland itself.
Time and time again, just when Prisoners of the Ghostland gets interesting, something happens to ruin that. Either the film changes tonal direction, the plot moves away from its current goal, or a character does something out of step. In theory, this erratic, unpredictable pacing is meant to keep the audience guessing and engaged. In practice, it undercuts and undermines the goodwill the film starts to gain. Each of those storylines or character threads have some merit on their own. Parts are funny, creepy, cool, and just plain weird. This, too, is by design but without a focus at the center, the whole movie just ends up feeling messy. It’s almost as if Sono and his team had a brainstorming session and every idea made it into the movie. It didn’t matter if the neon-lit trucks, red-light district, cowboys, samurais, or nuclear sewage ghosts all fit together, they’re each cool on their own, right?
A few of the action set pieces, especially at the end, are enjoyable and Cage is always fun to watch. Moseley is sufficiently creepy too as is the wacky production design. But Boutella doesn’t really get to shine like she has in previous movies such as Kingsman or Star Trek Beyond and no one has an iota of chemistry. You get the sense most people involved weren’t quite sure what to make of this movie and just hoped it would come together in the end.
And by the end, there’s certainly a sense that the film is trying to do something bigger than itself. For example, there are references to George Orwell’s Animal Farm that make you reassess exactly what it is you’ve been watching, but it comes too little, too late. Prisoners of the Ghostland is just a hodgepodge of random ideas that never come together.
Prisoners of the Ghostland had its world premiere at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival. RLJE Films acquired it for release so you can expect to see it later this year.
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