Sion Sono is one of the most original and exciting filmmakers still working, creating such astonishing masterpieces as “Love Exposure,” “Why Don’t You Play in Hell?,” and “Tokyo Tribe.” With “Prisoners of the Ghostland,” Sono has made his first primarily English language film, and the results are mixed to say the least. At first glance, the unhinged energy of Nicolas Cage and the manic stylings of Sono would seem to be the perfect match. However, something seems to have gotten lost in translation on the way from pre-production to the actual production of “Prisoners of the Ghostland,” as Cage and the English-speaking actors stumble through the film looking mostly confused. Also, the script for “Prisoners of the Ghostland” (written by Aaron Hendry and Reza Sixo Safai) is a cliché-filled mess, with one-dimensional character tropes like the villainous Western town governor/sheriff, the silent and noble samurai, and Cage’s troubled Western cowboy with a heart of gold.
“Prisoners of the Ghostland” is a mash-up of Eastern and Western genres such as the samurai film and the Western, but infused through an uninspired script about a character known only as Hero (Nicolas Cage) who has to rescue the adopted daughter (Sofia Boutella) of a crooked Western town’s governor (Bill Moseley) from a post-apocalyptic, nuclear devastated wasteland. Although this premise sounds promising, “Prisoners of the Ghostland” is filled with awkwardly staged scenes that are unintentionally hilarious. At one point, Cage is supposed to be giving a Spartacus-like rallying cry to his troops to rise up against the corrupt governor character, but Sono reduces his inspiring speech to only a few embarrassingly ambiguous words. This could be Sono playing with genre tropes and making a commentary on the ridiculousness of classic Hollywood studio films, but it comes more across as Cage not knowing what he’s supposed to be saying. Maybe Sono is making a parody of machismo in traditional Western films, but he does so in such an obvious and one-dimensional manner, with less subtlety and finesse as he did parodying Japanese samurai and mafia films in better films like “Why Don’t You Play in Hell?” and “Cold Fish.”
However, not all of “Prisoners of the Ghostland” is an unmitigated disaster. Sono is still able to instill some of his own unique vision into the film, as in the elaborate production design. He infuses the film’s mise-en-scene with an at times visually astounding mixture of Japanese kabuki style backdrops, post-apocalyptic steampunk cities, and neon-lit landscapes that recall the elaborate backgrounds from “Tokyo Tribe.” It is also worth noting that the scenes which work best in “Prisoners of the Ghostland” are the scenes not involving any dialogue, where Sono has to convey his message through visuals and non-verbal cues, such as the chillingly effective flashback sequences where Hero is haunted by the specter of a boy who was the victim of the film’s opening bank robbery sequence.
However, once the English language dialogue begins, Sono is on less sure footing. Dialogue sequences that would be otherwise bitingly hilarious in Sono’s Japanese films come across as gratingly unfunny, and at times Hero’s scenery chewing feels more like Nicholas Cage being himself rather than channeling anything unique about his on-screen character. The other English language leads don’t fare any better, as they ramble through their scenes with all the subtlety of soap opera stars. To be fair, Sono doesn’t have much to work with as the script for “Prisoners of the Ghostland” is filled with genre clichés, and no matter how many astounding visuals Sono throws at the screen, it can’t cover up the mediocrity of his source material.
While earlier works from Sono such as “Tokyo Tribe” and “Tokyo Vampire Hotel” built up to exhilaratingly choreographed fight sequences, the last act of “Prisoners of the Ghostland” is embarrassingly anemic. We see samurai thrust at each other flimsily and gunslingers do their best to instill menace into their pistol battles, but it all comes across like a cheap, high school production of a Sion Sono film. By the time the Hero character has his final battle with the main samurai character of the film, the fight is so anti-climactic and poorly staged that one gets the sense that Sono had given up at that point, and just wanted to end the production so he could go work on something better.
Every great filmmaker has stumbled a few times throughout their careers, as Scorsese did with films like “New York, New York,” “Gangs of New York,” and “Shutter Island,” so “Prisoners of the Ghostland” is by no means a career ending film for Sono. Perhaps Sono made “Prisoners of the Ghostland” as a calling card film for the American film industry, as it’s his first film funded by a Hollywood production company with mostly English-speaking leads. If this is indeed the case, one can hope that Sono will have a better script to work with next time; one that will give Sono the chance to display to Western audiences the truly unique talent that he is. In the meantime, it would be a tragedy if Western audiences only know Sono through “Prisoners of the Ghostland,” as they will be missing out on a treasure trove of cinematic masterworks.
- Film Review: Prisoners of the Ghostland