starring Nicolas Cage, Sofia Boutella, Nick Cassavetes, Tak Sakaguchi
screenplay by Aaron Hendry, Reza Sixo Safai
directed by Sion Sono
by Walter Chaw A theory I've been kicking around about certain pre-made, fast-fashion auteur demimondes like, say, Sion Sono: there are those who are anointed cult filmmakers because they have idiosyncratic tastes; and there are those without any real taste who aspire to be cult filmmakers because they've figured out that idioscyncracy can be marketable and have thus taken it on as an affectation. The former make films the only way they can make them, driven by a purity and persistence of vision; the latter make stuff like Prisoners of the Ghostland, because they've seen films by the former and wonder what could be so hard about that? It's why Sono's work is only spoken of in reference to other films and filmmakers, or even to earlier entries in his own filmography, back when he was doing what he felt was right rather than what he thought he should. Prisoners of the Ghostland is a facile affectation, in other words, a slapdash collection of somebody else's cool without a genuine, native bone in its body. Douglas Adams includes instructions for how to fly in his Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy books: you fall and miss. You can't fly on purpose, you see. You can't make a camp movie on purpose, either. It took me three tries to get through Prisoners of the Ghostland. 102 minutes of someone not meaning it is incredibly boring.
Hero (Nicolas Cage) is in prison for a bank heist gone wrong in, yes, Samurai Town, which is run by The Governor (Bill Moseley). Seems the unsurprisingly country-fried repugnant Governor has lost his "niece," Bernice (Sofia Boutella), who has escaped his harem (?), I guess, in a premise not unlike that of Mad Max: Fury Road. This is not a difficult reference to catch, given there is subsequently a scene where the survivors of a nuclear pestilence tell their history through pictures like the kids in Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome. The Governor wants Hero to save Bernice from The Ghostland--which, if this were a theme park the way it wants to be a theme park, would be the Mad Max section. It's just down the road from the sukiyaki western section, and brothel-adjacent. In between? Guys dressed like the Wheelers from Return to Oz called the "Rat Band" or the "Rat Pack" (a ring-a-ding-ding). The Rat dudes take Hero to Nuke-Town, whose denizens spend a lot of time ritualistically holding back a giant clock hand to keep a live nuclear bomb from detonating. That part kind of reminds me of the bald human survivors worshipping a bomb in Beneath the Planet of the Apes (which ends the way Bridge on the River Kwai ends, curiously enough), as well as Dark City, with its clock motif, and also Harold Lloyd. Oh, and The Big Clock. But mostly it reminds me how much this movie just sucks with a hearty vigour compared to its sources, regardless of an arresting image or two.
To ensure compliance, The Governor fits Hero into a Fremen stillsuit outfitted with little bombs--like, you know, Suicide Squad and its weaponization of dangerous criminals held barely in sway by an implanted explosive. The hilarious part? Sono's like, what if instead of putting a bomb in his brainstem, we put bombs on his arms that will detonate if he hits a girl; a bomb around his neck if he tries to take the suit off; and a bomb on each "testi-CULE," should he develop amorous feelings for Bernice. Later, the Rat Band's costumes are revealed to have LEDs in them that cause them to light up, Running Man-style, and then Hero engineers a mechanical doodad to fix a ruined arm, so that's Evil Dead 2 covered. Groovy? (No, not groovy.) There's a scene about a half-hour towards the end when Hero's ex-partner shows up and says, "Hey! Do you recognize this face?" And although said face is scarred-up, of course you do. Nevertheless, Sono delivers a split-second flashback reminding us who the person is, because I'm pretty sure he thinks we're too stupid, or maybe too uncool, to roll with the unimpeachable magnificence of his lawless quirk. The truth is that with 30 minutes to go, most anyone who's seen a film is still waiting for their first surprise.
Prisoners of the Ghostland does give up the Cage goods, though, for those frustrated by his humanity in Pig. He's asked here to scream "TESTICLE" to the heavens, and he does. I realize that I've forgotten to mention that one of his buddies...well, compatriots--no, another character is a samurai in The Governor's employ named Yasujiro (Tak Sakaguchi). Yasujiro grows a conscience; if he doesn't actually go full ronin, his actions are so obscure that when he squares off against Hero for a final showdown, all there is to do, really, is offer a shrug and a soulful sigh. Then there's the caged women, the nuts "sister" of Bernice, to say nothing of Bernice herself, the typical Boutella role of tougher-than-she-looks-but-still-a-victim-most-of-the-time. The picture's misogyny is so prevalent and gleeful, so wanton and puerile, I don't even want to dignify it with an analysis. It's a frat bro hanging out the window of a moving car shouting "boobies!" Have I mentioned the call-out to The Wild Bunch, so disrespectful and out of place it's impossible to parse if there's a reason for it or if it's just in there because Sono's all about the gravy and not the meat? I do like the bit at the end where a character shouts, in Mandarin, "Look, he did it, time has started again!" I thought this was especially funny in light of how this movie is about two days long in biological time. Look, Sono has some technical skill. It's possible he has a great movie in him. He should, however, probably cut the shit if he ever wants to come out from under Takashi Miike's shadow.