This article originally appeared on Cinema Scholars
Returning to the unhinged film persona he has grown into for the last decade, Nicolas Cage stars in Prisoners of the Ghostland. Directed by Sian Sono and co-starring Sofia Boutella, Nick Cassavetes and Bill Moseley, Cage and Sono attempt a genre mashup of post-apocalyptic action with spaghetti westerns and martial arts. It all adds up to an incoherent mess of themes, indecision and missed opportunities.
Prisoners of the Ghostland takes place in a near-lawless frontier city called Samurai Town. The wealthy warlord of the town The Governor (Moseley) has lost his adopted granddaughter Bernice (Boutella). In order to find her, the Governor recruits an imprisoned criminal known as Hero (Cage) to retrieve her.
To expedite her rescue, the Governor equips Hero with a high-tech suit which will explode in various spots if he hurts Bernice. After three day’s time, it will blow up entirely. Given his task, Hero heads off towards the ghostland with his own demons chasing him along the way.
Sono might have a clear idea what he wants from this film, but he can’t convey it clearly to an audience. The film opens as East-meets-West mashup, but turns into a Mad Max-style wasteland, and continues to go back-and-forth until you have whiplash.
Cage never settles on Hero’s characterizaton. Is he supposed to be a near-silent Man With No Name, or the Tasmanian devil we come to expect from the Oscar winner? Hero will go long stretches with little to no dialogue and then will wildly exclaim his intentions on a pedestal, then return to silence.
Even the more supernatural elements are poorly explained and executed. Hero is able to track down Bernice, but she is “trapped” by the ghosts and lost in a trance. The ghosts are never shown as actually being evil. When the characters meet the “ghosts”, they act as neutral parties and encourage Hero to defeat the Governor in order to free the land.
The ghostland traps Hero and Bernice. After an injury, Hero dreams a vision. In his dream, he goes to a real place he and Bernice had just left, but then wakes up right where he was.
This inconsistency never gives the film a firm hold on where everything is taking place and what the real stakes are. The governor is obviously a villain, but what is his relationship to the ghosts? Why did Bernice run away? Why do the ghosts care about this in-between land? Nothing is thoroughly explained and is too silly to care about.
Sofia Boutella was the biggest disappointment. The Algerian actress has shown an impressive physical and emotional presence films like Kingsman: The Secret Service and Star Trek: Beyond. Here, Boutella does little more than stand in a trance and has one brief action scene that lasts no longer than 30 seconds.
Moseley has the firmest grasp on the type of film he is in, going 12 notches higher over-the-top than the rest of the actors. The Governor is a brash, silly character, but he is more of an obnoxious blowhard than a dangerous presence. Moseley snarls through the film but can’t elevate the proceedings.
Cage’s inconsistency is prescient of the film’s problems. Cage’s steely presence is enough for the film the relax into. When he flips the switch, he will exclaim to a group of perplexed townsfolk how he lost a testicle. During the rare action scenes, Cage suddenly turns into a ballerina of violence, despite barely doing anything action-adjacent prior.
Despite all the problems, Prisoners of the Ghostland is not completely without merit. Sono and produciton designer Toshohiro Isomi craft a rich environment of western and kung fu movie-inspired set designs. Costume designer Chieko Matsumoto draws equal inspiration into the vibrant dresses and komonos.
Cinematographer Sôhei Tanikawa puts as much effort into the film as anyone, delivering some starkly beautiful visuals without overdoing it. He mixes clear, bright interiors of a bank heist with sun-drenched desert vistas without breaking a sweat. Despite the beauty of some of these shots, the contrasts add to the film’s whiplash narrative.
Sono choices on violence are as inconsistent as the film. While a number of deaths are relatively bloodless, some are viscerally violent and visually interesting. But, as with the rest of the film, Sono never settles on one side or the other. It all adds up to an inconsistent vision and a push-pull of genres.
Prisoners of the Ghostland assuages fans of Cage’s lunacy, but Sono’s artistic prowess only stretches so far. Despite the exceptional visual elements of the film, the story is an incoherent mess of confusion and heavy-handed themes that never pay off. The film ends up as too strange to understand and too boring to care about.