Sundance Review: Prisoners of the Ghostland
Do filmmakers just not know how to use Nicolas Cage anymore? Unsurprisingly, I haven’t watched every Cage vehicle in recent years, but when looking at the ones that got more than a smattering of attention — Mandy, Color Out of Space, etc. — there’s a disheartening trend that boils down to the fact that I’m there to see Nicolas Cage’s particular brand of endearing bugnuttery and the film around him is mucking up the gears with far too much business. Based on director Sion Sono’s reputation, I was hoping his new film Prisoners of the Ghostland would take a page out of the Herzog book and craft a film that worked to maximize Cage’s idiosyncratic talents; alas, it seems like we’ll have to wait a little longer for the Cage renaissance that always seems tantalizingly just out of reach.
Ghostland starts off promisingly enough, showcasing a Mad Max-esque post-apocalyptic punk vibe that will have you rushing to keep up with the mish-mash of cultural influences being thrown at you. Cage shows up pretty quickly and is almost immediately saddled with a premise that oozes potential: town leader The Governor (cult actor Bill Moseley, always welcome) has a missing daughter (Sofia Boutella), and Cage’s Hero (yes, that’s how he’s billed) can atone for his criminal past by tracking her down. What’s to stop Hero from getting the hell out of Dodge at the first opportunity? Glad you asked — he’s been strapped into a leather suit outfitted with micro-bombs at the neck, arms, and testicles. So there we have it: Nicolas Cage has bombs strapped to his testicles and has to fight his way through a post-apocalyptic wasteland made up of a hybrid Cowboy-Samurai aesthetic. It should be hard to whiff on a setup like that, right?
The problem with Ghostland may simply be that it creates expectations that it can’t deliver on — the premise screams action-packed thrill ride, but the reality is anything but. While there are moments of gonzo fun to be had — spoiler alert, Cage does scream the word “testicle” at the top of his lungs at one point — Sono seems to have spent so much time building this mashup of a future world that he forgot to give the most engaging characters in it much of anything to do. Long stretches of the film fall surprisingly flat, going around in circles with various members of these isolated communities without ever giving us a reason to really care about their plight or their fates. The Road Warrior, George Miller’s masterful first Mad Max sequel, is pretty clearly an inspiration, but Sono is unable to strike the balance between character development, world-building, and propulsive set-pieces that Miller so deftly crafts.
That’s not to say there isn’t action — there’s just not enough of it, and what there is leaves us hankering for more. Responsible for a good portion of the more engaging sequences, actor and martial artist Tak Sakaguchi in particular stands out as a seemingly conflicted bodyguard who wields a blade with precision and artistry, but even his prodigious talents are given far too little time to shine. By the time we reach the bloody fun of the climactic battle, the impact is dulled by the conundrum that we’ve been oversaturated with exposition but not given enough reason to care about the events on screen.
I understand that this all may come across as overly harsh, but it’s less that the film is bad and more that it’s a disappointment relative to expectations, especially for this critic who has been long waiting for a return to form for the aging and misunderstood star at this film’s center. That being said, even if Prisoners of the Ghostland may not deliver on that front, there are still worse ways to spend one’s time than watching Cage run around with testicle bombs — sometimes we just have to stop and appreciate the simple pleasures we’ve been given instead of pining for what could have been.