Review for Prisoners Of The Ghostland
That’s probably the shortest lived vow I’ve taken. Following a recent viewing of The Humanity Bureau, the last in a series of recent Nicolas Cage movies, I swore never to watch any of his newer movies again. There’s a phase that some former a-list actors enter as their respective careers decline where they either take the easy pay-checks, or they wind up making the same movie over and over again. After watching Death Wish, you never needed to see another Charles Bronson movie again; it’s the same with Liam Neeson and Taken. Ever since I saw Knowing, every new Nicolas Cage movie I’ve subsequently watched has felt the same, with the actor relying on his ‘quizzical’ expression to a greater degree in films with declining budgets and lowered talents.
But then I heard about Sion Sono making an English language movie, Prisoners of the Ghostland. Sion Sono is a Japanese director whose work has long appealed to me, as hard working and as eclectic as the renowned Takashi Miike, but even more esoteric in his subject matter. Films like Antiporno, The Whispering Star, Tag, and Love Exposure, Himizu, Tokyo Tribe, The Land of Hope, and Cold Fish should be every viewing bucket list. On top of that, low budget action star Tak Sakaguchi (Re:Born, Deadball, Yakuza Weapon) also has a role, and serves as action co-ordinator. This is a film that I have to see, and to be honest, the fact that it stars Nicolas Cage is really a secondary concern to me.
The Governor’s granddaughter has gone missing. She went for a drive and just didn’t come back. Apparently, she’s vanished into the Ghostland, a cursed place from which no one returns. To get his granddaughter back, the Governor enlists a convicted prisoner to venture into this haunted no-man’s land. Guilty of a bank-robbery that turned into a bloodbath, this man is the last person you’d want to entrust with someone’s life, and the Governor’s no dummy. He locks him in a suit with explosives implanted, a literal deadline of three days. However, if he finds this girl, Bernice, and gets her to talk into a microphone on his suit, he’ll buy another two days of life to get her back with the promise of freedom at the end. Getting into the Ghostland proves to be comparatively easy, but when he finds Bernice, she’s lost her voice because of the Ghostland’s curse, a curse which means that no one ever leaves.
Prisoners of the Ghostland gets a 2.35:1 widescreen 1080p transfer, and you get the choice of DTS-HD MA 5.1 Surround and PCM 2.0 Stereo English with Hard of Hearing English subtitles. I say English, but it’s really a hybrid audio track, with a lot of Japanese dialogue for which there is burned in subtitles. The English isn’t too hot either, with a fair few dubious accents. I thought that the subtitles might help in that regard, and I turned them on after twenty minutes, but for every line of dialogue that is clarified, two lines remain unintelligible (even the captions say “unintelligible” at those points). There’s no such problem with the image though, clear and sharp, and free of visible compression artefacts. It’s all for the good as it brings across Sion Sono’s vision to excellent effect. The production design, a collision of Cowboy and Samurai aesthetic looks astounding, as does the costume design. The action sequences also look great on screen, with plenty of amazing chanbara to marvel at.
The disc presents the content with an animated menu.
The Making of Featurette lasts 8:15.
The UK Premiere Q&A with director Sion Sono and Producer Ko Mori lasts 27:20.
The UK trailer lasts 2:08.
It’s a problem when any new movie instantly makes you think fondly of other movies that are obvious influences, because in the end they are better films. For a fair bit of Prisoners of the Ghostland I was wondering why I wasn’t watching Escape From New York instead... or Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome. A post apocalyptic wasteland, where a prisoner is conscripted to go into a hell-hole to rescue someone, and he’s under a literal death sentence if he fails. The Ghostland here is a warped, fantasy world, with a degenerate society still living off the influences of pop culture. Really when it comes to the story, Prisoners of the Ghostland is derivative and not that great if you compare it to other, similar films, of which there are many.
However this isn’t the reason to watch Prisoners of the Ghostland. For one thing, it’s a Hollywood/Japanese co-production which leans heavily on the Japanese side of things, when it comes to the story, the characters, even the dialogue, It gets to the point where there’s a bit of a cognitive disconnect when you start watching the film, and start seeing these larger than life performances from actors who you would normally expect to be more understated. It’s also wonderfully stylised. The visual aesthetic of the film, the direction just offers a kaleidoscopic vision of a neon post-apocalyptic world. This is the most stylistically impressive Sion Sono film since Tokyo Tribe.
This is also a rather petty joy, but this film has the best Cage-ism I have seen in ages. You know what a Nicolas Cage-ism is, right? It’s when he gets a paragraph of dialogue which he’ll deliver in a relatively quiet voice, punctuated by two random words in the middle, delivered at maximum volume and with full on rage. The two words in this film are the best two words in a Cage-ism ever.
Prisoners of the Ghostland feels like a b-movie, but with a-movie production values and scope. The story is disposable, but the style compensates for a whole lot. The action looks pretty good as well, punching well above its weight. It’s not the best film ever, and it doesn’t provide the ‘John Travolta/Pulp Fiction’ kick up the arse that Cage’s career seems to need at this point, but Prisoners of the Ghostland is a lot better than you might have heard, and worth making some time for.