Think back to your time in elementary school. Think about that one kid in your class who snorted Pixie Stix, constantly drank way too much soda, ran circles around everyone else at recess, and maybe even inspired some awe at his seemingly boundless amounts of energy. That kid’s actions were always so far removed from the traditional behavior of you and your peers that he may as well have been an alien, dropped into your school as some sort of bizarre social experiment.
If that kid were a movie, he’d be Prisoners of the Ghostland, filmmaker Sion Sono‘s unhinged new genre mashup which combines elements of classic westerns, samurai movies, John Carpenter’s Escape From New York, Stephen Chow’s Kung Fu Hustle, George Miller’s Mad Max, and more. This spastic burst of cinematic energy is the type of film that gleefully embraces the knowledge that it will gain absolutely zero traction outside the midnight movie crowd. But while there are a couple of Nicolas Cage freakout scenes, the rest of Prisoners of the Ghostland may end up being a little too cryptic for casual genre fans looking to kick back and have a good time.
During a prologue, we see two bank robbers (Cage and Nick Cassavetes) try to pull off a job that goes wrong. Elsewhere, three women escape from the red light district of the heightened, neon-drenched Samurai Town – but one of them, Bernice (Sofia Boutella), soon wakes up in a run-down desert camp called the Ghostland. “I’m not a prisoner!” she screams into the night, establishing one of the film’s most consistent themes.
After the title card appears, the real set up begins. Years later, Cage’s unnamed character, who had been jailed after the botched robbery, is dragged out of his cell and into the middle of Samurai Town’s streets at the behest of The Governor (Bill Moseley), the town’s most powerful man. Everyone there dresses like either a cowboy, a ronin, or a geisha, and with the entire town’s guns trained on Cage, The Governor explains that his adopted granddaughter Bernice has gone missing, and he needs Cage to find her. He forces Cage to suit up in a black leather jumpsuit lined with bombs, which will detonate if he doesn’t bring Bernice home – and in a playful plussing of this Escape From New York setup, there’s a bomb placed near each of Cage’s testicles to prevent him from hooking up with her.
With no choice in the matter, Cage heads out to a “stretch of highway where evil reigns” on a quest to find her, and the rest of the movie follows him through bizarre vignettes on his attempt to bring her home. The film, which was already heavily stylized, unleashes the floodgates and throws just about everything it can at our hero: a prophecy, samurai ghosts, people trapped inside mannequin plaster molds, a deranged cult-like city, a scavenger named Ratman operating on the fringes of society, and so many more moments that if I explained them here, this would sound like one of the most insane movies ever made. Hell, maybe it is.
Sono feels like he’s steeped in deep knowledge of all of the genres he’s paying homage to here, and there are several moments where he leans into the fun of operating in this operatic, heightened type of cinema. Some of the samurai deaths during the climactic battle feature bloody spurts that recall the blood-gushing final face-off in Kurosawa’s Sanjuro; a bit of performative exposition about the nuclear waste crash seems like it could have been pulled straight out of Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome; the synth score accentuated by acoustic guitar and Ennio Morricone-style whistles is a knowing blend of John Carpenter’s beloved ’80s filmography and classic westerns. It culminates with a massive street battle that features a couple instances of cool action choreography and swordplay, and the power dynamics shift as hope and purpose are restored to these communities that have been ruled with an iron fist.
But amid all of the gonzo antics and ridiculous visuals (at one point, Cage dons a football helmet and is rocking a metal arm with a sword blade protruding from it), I’ll admit I had a hard time tracking exactly all of this craziness is supposed to add up to. There’s a subplot involving a prison bus crashing into a transport truck filled with toxic nuclear waste, and the condemnation of authority figures who refuse to help regular folks who live near the crash site because that would mean the authorities would have to acknowledge that the crash happened – and they refuse to take that responsibility. There’s a sign in the background of a scene that reads “Make This Country Great Again,” so is all of this a commentary on the way the United States bungled the handling of the coronavirus pandemic? Is The Governor, who loves power and being surrounded by women, supposed to be a stand-in for Trump? There’s another subplot about time, with citizens of Ghostland literally freezing time by holding the hand of their giant town clock in place with a long rope. The clock is linked to the nuclear subplot, making me wonder if it’s some kind of doomsday commentary or a callback to the atomic bombs that America unleashed on Japan (where this film was shot). But the movie’s unique setting gives it a weird sense of timelessness, so I honestly couldn’t tell you what Sono is going for. It’s the kind of movie that’s vague enough where you can get several interpretations out of it, and I look forward to seeing if my colleagues were able to glean more clarity from the filmmaker’s vision than I did.
Cage feels right at home in a role like this, and even though he gets to do some pretty ludicrous things (at one point he threatens to karate chop someone and amusingly yells “Hi-fucking-ya!”), those moments don’t have nearly the same emotional rage and raw power that he delivered in Mandy a couple of years ago, which leaves these flourishes feeling a little empty in comparison. Boutella, on the other hand, feels like she’s barely hanging on during this ride, and she really only gets to show off the physicality for which she’s known during the big action scene at the end.
A maniacal whirlwind of cinematic insanity, it feels equally likely that Prisoners of the Ghostland could become a cult classic or disappear into the fog. Whether its overall inscrutability is a bug or a feature remains to be seen.
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