The work of Nicolas Cage brings to mind a sort of gonzo, off-kilter approach to characters that has solidified him in the hearts of fans everywhere, even when he’s taken parts in movies that aren’t nearly as good as he is. So Cage should be the perfect choice to lead idiosyncratic Japanese auteur Sion Sono’s first (mostly) English language film Prisoners of the Ghostland, a wacky journey into a post-apocalyptic hellscape. However, throughout the film, Cage looks just as lost as many viewers are likely to feel while watching the largely nonsensical story.
The set up of Prisoners of the Ghostland is straightforward: a jailed bank robber known only as Hero (Cage) is set free by The Governor (Bill Moseley), the leader of an East-meets-West burgh called Samurai Town, and commanded to find his missing adopted granddaughter Bernice (Sofia Boutella). Of course, Hero isn’t about to find the girl out of the goodness of his villainous heart, so he’s locked into a leather suit with explosives at his neck, arms, and testicles that serve to both keep him in check during his mission and ensure he completes the task within five days in order to keep the entire thing from detonating.
Hero’s search takes him to the Ghostland, a grungy wasteland laid low by a nuclear disaster and full of strange beings who repeatedly insist they can’t leave. Hero finds Bernice relatively easily, but really the movie’s thin plot seems to mostly be an excuse to explore the strange worlds of Samurai Town and Ghostland. Both places and the people who inhabit them are visually interesting, yet the movie’s plot and characters remain simplistic while hinting at the possibility of deeper themes — including what happens to the victims of government cover ups, the horrors of nuclear disasters, the subjugation of women by powerful men, and the passage of time — that are superficially touched on, only to be quickly dropped.
Meanwhile, the film doesn’t have much internal logic. The Governor wants Hero to find Bernice because of his supposed skills but none of those are seen in action. If anything, he spends a large portion of the movie knocked out and dreaming about his past. It’s also unclear why the residents of Ghostland can’t just walk away, outside of the fact that they keep saying they can’t. And their inability to leave comes across as especially strange because Samurai Town seems to be a relatively short car ride away.
Then there’s the Nicolas Cage of it all. Many of the actors in Prisoners of the Ghostland give bizarre or cranked-up performances, but instead of matching them, Cage underplays many of his scenes to the point where he often seems to be phoning it in. To some extent, this is understandable. Hero is a completely nondescript character, so outside of losing the odd body part to an explosion, Cage has very little to hang his performance on. Boutella has the same problem as Bernice, who spends most of the movie either barely moving or shouting.
Furthermore, although Prisoners of the Ghostland is never boring to look at, the production and costume design often seems to throw together references from other films and TV shows without any real rhyme or reason. Samurai Town is a mishmash of cherry blossoms, samurais, geishas, and cowboys that makes it come across like a mashup of the theme parks featured in Westworld, while Ghostland lifts heavily from the dystopian world of Mad Max. Nonetheless, these strange settings create a compelling tableaux; still, there’s only so much that can be done to distract from the incoherence of the story. Prisoners of the Ghostland undoubtedly is off the wall, but it’s neither meaningful nor wild enough to be more than sporadically interesting.