Prisoners of the Ghostland sees Nicolas Cage teaming up with Japanese iconoclast Sion Sono to deliver a ridiculous and bewildering action-adventure.
“TESTICLE!” screams Nicolas Cage during an inspiring speech in Prisoners of the Ghostland, the new film from Japanese director and iconoclast Sion Sono. Even though Prisoners is Sono’s English language debut, he has been making films in Japan for decades, with over fifty features under his name. His films are often defined by lurid ultraviolence and perverse dark comedy, with touches of nihilism and drenched in neon lighting. The preeminent Cage seems like the perfect match for Sono, two artists who constantly push themselves to reach for new, ridiculous heights. While the chemistry between Cage and Sono results in some glorious scenes, Prisoners of the Ghostland is mostly a middling affair, with a screenplay drowned in dialogue and strangely lacking in grandiose action set-pieces.
But let’s take a step back for a second and explore the plot of Prisoners of the Ghostland. Almost right away, we are launched into a post-apocalyptic future that is ruled by the The Governor (Bill Moseley), a charmingly stereotypical Western villain, draped in an all-white suit and a voice laced with a bad Southern accent. He rules the world with money and a conniving smirk, with henchmen ranging from Old West sheriffs to samurai warriors. He seeks the help of the Hero (Nicolas Cage) as he is known to save The Governor’s granddaughter Bernice (Sofia Boutella).
The Hero is a prisoner of his own, captured by the authorities after a robbery he participated in went horribly wrong. Now, this is when things start to get weird. Bernice is trapped in the Ghostland, an alternate dimension created by an atomic explosion. The Hero’s mission is to rescue her in five days. He’s given a suit he must wear that features safeguards to make sure he brings back Bernice unharmed. The suit is compiled of multiple explosive devices, including one for each of his testicles. I think you have an idea where this goes from there.
The visuals are captivating throughout, alternating between the gritty grays and browns of the Ghostland to the slick whites of the Hero’s flashbacks, to the moody neon lighting of the Governor’s town. The production design is also impressive, most evident in the construction of the Ghostland, set under the shadow of a massive structure holding up a giant clock. While the technical elements of Prisoners of the Ghostland are effectively transportive, the film falters at a storytelling level. The first twenty-five minutes feel too exposition-heavy and there is too much meandering dialogue throughout. Part of this might have to do with Sono not writing the screenplay: it was co-written by first time screenwriters Aaron Hendry and Reza Sixo Safai.
While goofy bits of comedy pop up here and there, the film is lacking Sono’s distinct sense of humor that revels in darkness and perversity, as well as his infatuation with nihilism and doom. Additionally, the screenplay is light on action thrills and debauchery, other trademarks of Sono’s films. Prisoners of the Ghostland feels tamer compared to Sono’s best works, which include Why Don’t You Play in Hell and Suicide Club. Both these movies feature inspired sequences of bloody carnage, the kind of mayhem that is strangely lacking for most of Prisoners of the Ghostland.
Fortunately, Nicolas Cage is dialed into the absurdity at the center of the film and plays it all delightfully straight. He performs as if every ridiculous turn should be taken extremely seriously and delivers genuine emotional intensity even as the film becomes more and more unhinged. Furthermore, the final fifteen minutes indulge in an exciting and creative action sequence, complete with a minigun, severed heads, and delirious swordplay. Even though Prisoners of the Ghostland features a clumsy screenplay and a dearth of spectacle, there are touches of Sono’s off-kilter comedy and the final moments are just enough to make up for the film’s weaker parts.
Prisoners of the Ghostland premiered at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival on Sunday, January 31, 2021 and is now available to watch on digital and on demand.