By: Steph Cannon
There are certain collaborations in film that, on paper, seem as though they’d be a match made in heaven. When it was announced there would be a partnership between the subversive and eccentric Japanese filmmaker Sion Soho and Nicolas Cage, the general conjecture from movie fans was that they would be in for a fun ride. Combining the offbeat storytelling style of Soho with Cage’s irreverent take on his craft not only makes sense, but shows gleeful promise. While the end result of PRISONERS OF THE GHOSTLAND and this pairing is indeed wild, it also goes completely off the rails in head-scratching, ludicrous paths.
Set against a neo-Western, Samurai backdrop, PRISONERS OF THE GHOSTLAND tells the story of Cage’s imprisoned, bank-robbing protagonist who is only ever referred to as The Hero. He’s broken out of jail by the malevolent and wealthy warlord The Governor (Bill Moseley) who wants Hero to retrieve his missing Granddaughter, Bernice (Sofia Boutella). Bernice is being held at a place called Ghostland, for reasons that are touched on, but never truly explained. This alone could be a compelling enough plot within the confines of the setting, but instead, the stakes are amped up in absolutely maniacal ways.
Hero is forced to wear a leather suit, with strategically placed, AI controlled, mini bombs. If he attempts to remove the suit, he’ll set off a bomb placed around his neck. If he tries to hurt Bernice, the suit will know and immediately amputate a limb. If he dares get excited around Bernice...well, there’s bombs that are placed in just the right place to punish him for that, too. To complicate matters further, he has just five days to complete this task, and must trek through the harsh, Mad Max-like terrain to get to Ghostland.
If the script had stuck with that plotline solely, it could have made for a compelling story. Unfortunately, it suffers from trying to force in as many bewildering, side-stepping tangents as possible, resulting in a dizzying spectacle that looks pretty, but lacks any real substance. The cinematography is massive, with costumes and set designs that add vibrant, eye-popping colors against the muted desert hues of Samurai Town.
In tone, this movie feels gargantuan, but in turn is in a constant state of struggling to match that with subplots and side characters that don’t make a lick of sense. We aren’t given enough time with any character to truly feel an emotional connection to them, and there are copious scenes of large groups chanting, singing, or just all-out screaming, that end up more grating than impressive. While there are a few notable, visually appealing fight scenes, they show up at such random, incomprehensible times that they can’t be enjoyed to their full potential.
It’s as if PRISONERS OF THE GHOSTLAND is a pot of stew, simmering along just fine, and then the cook decides to add in a dozen other spices that don’t go together for the dish, and then the cap falls off and an unintended amount of pepper is dumped in. This feels more like two or three movies shoved into one, with little to no explanation for the bizarre directions it goes off in. It spends so much time finding ways to convince the viewer to follow the new path it’s on, but will then suddenly take a hard swerve right, only to eventually go straight off a cliff and burst into flames.
By the time it comes to a screeching halt, we are still reeling from the twists and turns to truly make heads or tails for what we just watched. It’s a deranged, far-out take on a cool genre that misses the mark on being engaging by spinning too far out of control.
PRISONERS OF THE GHOSTLAND is streaming on Shudder.