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Sundance 2021: “Prisoners of the Ghostland” is what it is

Prisoners of the Ghostland

Nicolas Cage & Sion Sono team up for an incoherent Samurai-Western-Mad Max homage-something or other.

It’s impossible to review a Nicolas Cage movie. They’re the very definition of “critic-proof,” in that they always have a dedicated audience who will declare them “the craziest thing I’ve ever seen,” and forgive them for lacking in plot or competence. You don’t like it? You just don’t know how to relax and have a good time. Sion Sono’s first English language feature, Prisoners of the Ghostland fits right in: loud, garish, bereft of anything resembling a plot. Is it fun? It certainly thinks it is.

Trying to explain what Prisoners of the Ghostland is about is a fool’s errand, but let’s give it a go anyway. Nicolas Cage is Hero, a notorious bank robber whose last gig got a little boy killed (but he feels bad about it, so that absolves him). He’s summoned from jail by the Governor (Bill Moseley), who runs Samurai Town, a combination of Dodge City and Neo-Tokyo, with a dash of Terry Gilliam thrown in. Hero is ordered to rescue the Governor’s missing “granddaughter” Bernice (Sofia Boutella), and is fitted into an unremovable leather jumpsuit with explosive charges at his neck, elbows and crotch.

Hero is barely outside the town before he finds Bernice, hiding out in the Ghostland, a desolate area where refugees from Thunderdome live, many of whom work to keep a giant clock from moving forward, lest it cause a nuclear explosion. After rescuing Bernice, he eventually makes the decision to help free the residents of the Ghostland from the evil clutches of the Governor.

It sounds pretty simple, but I’m leaving so much out. I’m leaving out the prophecy, and the toxic waste zombies, and the samurai who has a crisis of conscience. I haven’t mentioned Rat Man and the Rat Gang. There’s at least five separate starting points for plots happening in Prisoners of the Ghostland, but rather than develop any of them, they’re glommed together into an over-the-top mess designed to distract you from the fact that it’s an empty exercise in excess. If we’re rating a movie solely on ambition, it’s a lockdown for Best Picture of 2021. There’s constantly something happening, in the background, along the edges of the screen. There’s always something weird to catch your eye. There’s a lot of screaming. So much screaming. But none of it really comes to much.

Is it fun? It certainly thinks it is.

As mentioned above, Prisoners of the Ghostland is Sion Sono’s first English language film, and indeed, it feels like it was made with Western audiences in mind. There’s a lot of imagery meant to appeal directly to white people who think they “appreciate” (as opposed to fetishize) Japanese culture, like geishas and creepy animal masks, and white men being giggled and cooed over by groups of very young kimono-clad women. One can hope that maybe Sono is making a pointed dig at such audiences, but that may be giving the movie more credit than it’s earned.

I’m not one of those film writers who think Nicolas Cage hasn’t made a good movie in years. I think Mandy is one of the best horror movies of the 10s. I liked Color Out of Space, and neither that or Mandy could be accused of being subtle or understated (although both feature characters worth caring about, which as it turns out makes a huge difference). Cage is fine here, if not a bit reserved, at least when compared to Moseley, who pronounces “testicles” as “testicules” in a broad Texas accent, and Yuzuka Nakaya as Moseley’s other “granddaughter,” whose dialogue was evidently written in the script as “piercing shrieks.” Prisoners of the Ghostland is the kind of movie that seems deliberately made to be a “love it or hate it,” with the “love it” contingency perhaps accusing the “hate it” folks of not having a sense of humor. I didn’t hate it. It just made me tired.

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Gena Radcliffe

Gena Radcliffe is the co-host of the award-winning (not really) horror podcast Kill by Kill, and has also written for F This Movie, Anatomy of a Scream, and Grim magazine (although the Spool is her pride and joy). Her pitch graveyard and "pieces that don't really belong anywhere else" can be found at genaradcliffe.com, and you can see her slowly losing her mind at Twitter under @porcelain72.