Director: Sion Sono
Stars: Nicolas Cage, Sofia Boutella, Bill Moseley
Prisoners of the Ghostland opens on a push-in shot of a gumball machine brimming with brightly coloured candy balls, and it’s as fitting an image for the unfolding tale as one might’ve hoped for. Japanese filmmaker Sion Sono has a cult following in the West for films such as Love Exposure and Guilty of Romance (not to mention lesser-seen gems like Tokyo Tribe and Antiporno). His English language feature debut may be belated, but it also feels in some way inevitable.
Hot off of the back of the critically-praised Pig, Nicolas Cage takes the lead in Sono’s East-meets-West gonzo actioner; a film knowingly indebted to ’80s high-concept shenanigans like Escape from New York and Hell Comes to Frogtown. Prisoners of the Ghostland feels like a concerted effort to join the ranks of midnight movies the world over, aspiring to a level of giddy irony that’ll appeal to everyone’s inner weirdo.
Cage plays our nameless Hero (another archetype right there); a former bank robber given his freedom from jail by Bill Moseley’s Governor so that he might successfully reclaim the man’s wayward daughter, Bernice (Sofia Boutella). To prohibit this Hero from simply fleeing, the Governor has him zipped into a sci-fi suit that’ll detonate his testicles – and other body parts – should he divert from his mission. The Hero is loosed into a world that splices iconography of the Western with the samurai flick; an incongruous place that adheres only to the whims of Sono’s aesthetic choices. Present day banks and cars, imagined tech and old-world villages and dress coalesce as Sono’s mash-up delivers on it’s promise of tongue-in-cheek post-apocalyptic nonsense.
Locating Bernice speedily (albeit accidentally) at the titular dusty carnival of Mad Max cosplayers, the Hero reckons his job done, but with a good hour left on the clock, we know better. With day-players putting in pantomime performances all around him, Cage’s is mostly left to look bemused or baffled for the first half of the film; an avatar for our own incredulity. Only occasionally is his much-mythologised persona allowed to surface – usually whenever his outfit detonates an appendage or two – until he seemingly awakens midway through and starts actively powering the machine. It’s a welcome shot of energy to the picture, but is it too little too late?
That the Hero finds Bernice encased in the remnants of a mannequin accentuates the film’s primary concern; the objectification of women. The Governor is revealed to be the cruel dominant of a harem of Japanese women, while Bernice’s ‘disappearance’ has afforded her the opportunity to become reborn as a saviour of subjugated sisters. It’s not difficult to get behind Ghostland‘s politics of emancipation and female empowerment, but they’re also rendered in broad, half-hearted strokes, and ultimately rendered meaningless thanks to the overriding push toward kook.
Sono’s reputation is earned. His filmography boasts a number of visually bold and kinetic movies, and he brings a technical nous and flare to Ghostland that less experienced directors would’ve struggled to maintain. In effect you have a seasoned professional taking a stab at the kind of low-budget hokum that a lot of first-timers clutter the horror scene with. It gives Ghostland a pronounced post-Grindhouse quality. It feels like a pastiche of so-called ‘bad’ filmmaking – a trend that fizzled out around a decade ago.
Still, the Impossible To Take Seriously tone acts as its own Get Out Of Jail Free card, for the most part. Fun in the moment, for sure, but undoubtedly a lesser work from Sono, and from Cage.