I know, I know, I know. You think I’m gonna wax on about legendary Horror director John Carpenter, but I’m not … well, suffice it to say that – contrary to the opinions of so many others – I’ve always argued that this nifty little SciFi/Thriller is the director’s best film. (Sorry, folks, just being honest, and I’ve always said I’ll be honest to a fault.) It’s the perfect bottle-story set-up – a captured criminal is promised his freedom in exchange for rescuing a U.S. President whose plane has crashed deep inside America’s only remaining maximum security prison – and it’s executed flawlessly from start-to-finish. Snake Plissken (played by Kurt Russell) is the quintessential anti-hero who’ll stop at nothing to save his skin but will never sacrifice his soul in the risky proposition.
Escape’s audience has always shuffled between mainstream and cult – probably owed to both Carpenter and Russell’s appeal – and Hollywood has several times attempted to remake the feature. (Thankfully, all legitimate efforts have failed to this point in cinematic history.) Me? Well, I prefer that they’d all leave well enough alone – a classic remains a classic – but every now-and-then someone comes along, picks up the central premise, and gives it a whirl. You know what most folks groan about Tinseltown? Originality is dead.
Well, Prisoners Of The Ghostland seems to have given it another whack. Though I can’t say for sure anyone involved with the production truly intended to channel the Carpenter film, the similarities are undeniably there. One-time critical darling Nicolas Cage fills the shoes of the role once played by Russell (a good choice), and the viewers are given the lovely Bernice (Sofia Boutella) in lieu of the President. Whereas Plissken’s body was injected with explosives set to detonate in twenty-two hours, Cage’s Hero had five days to complete his mission (inflation?), but I trust you get the point.
Was it all worth the effort?
That’s not so simple an answer.
From the product packaging: “In the treacherous frontier city of Samurai Town, a ruthless bank robber is sprung from jail by a wealthy warlord, The Governor, whose adopted granddaughter, Bernice, has run away. Strapped into a leather suit that will self-destruct within five days if he doesn’t find the missing girl, the bandit sets off on a journey to find the young woman – and his own path to redemption.”
To be fair, I’m not sure any advertising executive worth his weight in gold could pen a better plot synopsis for a feature like Ghostland. Though its premise is straightforward, how the Sion Sono-directed motion picture gets from Point A to B is more than a bit chaotic and probably defies convention.
For example, the first thought I had upon finishing my screening of it was: “Does Ghostland actually exist?”
Clearly within the constructs of the narrative here, it does, but there’s an obvious nebulousness to just where and how one gets to it, almost as if to say only the truly fractured can enter its boundaries. (It’ll make more sense if you’ve seen it … I hope.) Because of the ethereal quality of it all, I couldn’t help but wonder precisely how much I am to make of this shared journey. Did it happen, or is life but a dream? Storytellers have been known to tweak their various presentations of reality, and I suspect that’s the case here: look no further than the title, am I right? Ghost-land?
Still, positioning Ghostland as a kind of hyper-reality fairy tale doesn’t help it make any more sense. Yes, yes, yes, I get its vibe – perhaps were all trapped within a dream – but at some point even the deepest sleeper wakes up and tries to make sense of the visions, and that’s where I think the film just went overboard only for the sake of going overboard. I want my equations to add up to the sum of their parts; instead, I thought Ghostland left us with ghosts. Alas, there’s nothing real as its central message.
Oh, there are plenty of interesting images and clever ditties to distract along the way. Samurai Town – its residents and its neon-lit corners – is a Vegas-like attraction, standing as a stark, commercial alternative to the bleak and desolate Ghostland, so it’s entirely understandably why we, culturally, are more drawn to it. Life takes many shapes and sizes on the outside, but inside? Why, Ghostland’s carnival attraction of women is little more than female victims adorned with the pieces remaining of supposedly prettier mannequins. Sono’s clever bit of symbolism poses many questions, perhaps the biggest of which is “Why do we bury true beauty under an exterior of falseness?”
The people of Ghostland spend the bulk of their days fighting back the ticking of a massive clock in the town square. Why? Is that supposed to represent how we live our days pushing back against an inevitable ending? Should we, instead, embrace time, treat it not as an enemy but as a friend, and while away our days living in the moment? It’s a reasonable supposition … but is that the film’s message? I’ve no way to know, but were that the case then what am I to make of Hero? He’s tortured by the memory of a bank heist gone horribly wrong – not by his actions – and it eventually inspires him to make different choices as a character. He’s not living in the moment … so why should I?
I’ve written this before, and now I’ll write it again: symbolism without context is visual gibberish.
If there’s no clear anchor to the images, then I’m free to make of it what I will. While some might find such freedom honorable, I’ve always been confused by it. Hero’s story isn’t my story, and without the proper barometer supplied so that I can measure his experiences I have no choice but to substitute what I deduce instead of that which was intended by either the director or screenwriter. I’d rather walk away from a film knowing what I was to make of it as designed by those telling the story. Director Tim Burton does a mostly masterful job of matching up his imagery with his messages, and Sono could use a tutorial. In the end, I’ve no idea of what to make of it all … but it sure was pretty to look at!
Ghostland contains a fabulous sequence in its big finale. Hero and Samurai Town’s top enforcer – Yasujiro (Tak Sakaguchi) – face-off in a no-holds-barred deathmatch in the village square. As Fate would have it, they’ve found themselves not only at odds with each other but also with members of a rival gang who have a bone to pick with the revered samurai. Sono stages this contest with our two warriors battling one another while also assisting each other in fighting off those who would do them shared harm. And it’s cinematic brilliance! First, they’re enemies … then they’re allies … then they’re rivals again!
In retrospect, I think that’s how I felt about Sono’s film and whatever message he may’ve wanted me to take away from the effort. At times, I felt like we were in sync, but in the end we were opponents.
Sad. And here I thought we were supposed to be friends?
Recommended but I’m gonna be honest: you have to appreciate something truly bizarre in order to embrace all of Prisoners Of The Ghostland’s lunacy. It has only a mild character arc for star Cage, and I could argue even what there is makes very little sense. Too much of the story and characters are bizarre simply for the sake of being bizarre. The viewer has no choice but to make of it what he will, and that’s a dangerous precipice to rest this gonzo celebration of the truly weird upon if you ask me. I prefer my insanity make more sense.
In the interests of fairness, I’m pleased to disclose that the fine folks at RLJE Films provided me with a Blu-ray disc of Prisoners Of The Ghostland (2021) by request for the expressed purposes of completing this review; and their contribution to me in no way, shape, or form influenced my opinion of it.