Prisoners Of The Ghostland: Review. By Alif Majeed.
A while ago, I read the Mario Vargas novel called Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter, where the main character befriends a radio writer who gets so overworked that eventually, his characters and stories bleed into each other. This was the confusion I experienced when I started watching Prisoners of the Ghostland. It felt similar to that other Nicolas Cage movie from earlier this year with Willie in Wonderland. By the time I finished, though, that thought was assuaged, but there was deja vu for many similar movies that came before it.
For most parts, Prisoners come across as an amalgamation of the Mad Max movies and the worse parts of the 90s Kevin Costner indulgent movies like Waterworld and The Postman. The primary villain, called The Governor, with his tendencies to raise sex slaves and calling them his granddaughters, comes straight from Mad Max: Fury Road. The post-apocalyptic weirdness that populates the wasteland is also mostly done by making it look dust brown and dirty.
As the movie starts, The Governor hires Nicolas Cage’s character (too similar to Mad Max and Waterworld era Kevin Costner), simply named Hero, to find his missing, ahem, granddaughter. She has run away into the wilderness of the nuclear wasteland to avoid the cruelties of her grandfather cum owner, who rules the town or what remains of it with a pretty mean fist. It looks like the prosperous side of a nuclear bomb-affected wasteland and is supposed to be thriving as it looks bright, and everyone either dresses as gentle southern folks or like they live in 18th century affluent Japanese. (The movie plays hard and fast with the timeline.).
They fit small timed bombs across his body to ensure that Cage doesn’t stray from his mission or misbehave with the granddaughter once he finds her, including two on his testicles. (or as he puts it, TESTICAAALS, in a moment of pure Nicolas Cage madness). What happens when he finds the girl and if he decides to help her is not a hard guess to make from there.
The main issue with the movie is that Sion Sono is a director whose visual style and sensibilities are often something others would like to emulate. But here, it plays out like a watered-down version of Sino’s weirdest idiosyncratic tendencies, despite having a game Nicolas Cage at his disposal. You often ended up wishing he went all in, like some of his best movies. This movie still gets way too overlong for me despite having sat down watching fascinated by his admittedly indulgent 4-hour epic, Love, Exposure.
This is saddening as Sono, who has rightly earned his place as a genre auteur, even while being indulgent, was a perfect fit with Nicolas Cage’s sensibilities. They are in perfect sync as a director-actor duo, even if it could have been for a far better genre movie.
Not that his usual flourishes are missing here in this movie. The oracles who keep narrating the story beside visual sign boards are a wonderful stroke on his part. The opening scene with Cage robbing a bank is also pure Sono. It is the kind of scene that videos playing on display televisions in an electronic store are made for until the sudden burst of violence kicks in. Vibrant and interesting visuals pop out in that sequence that sets up the tone for the rest of the movie.
Now it may seem like Nicolas Cage might be back to his do-movie-to-pay-off taxes phase, but all the three movies he did this year, Willie’s Wonderland, Pig, and this one looks like pure artistic choices he made. He doesn’t come across as bored in any of them and is committed to taking them all the way. Even though the result here is mixed, you sure will be glad to know now what a team-up between Cage and Sono would like. It makes me wonder what would happen if he teams up with Takashi Miike, another legendary Japanese genre auteur, in the future.
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