It’s exciting to see Shyamalan on such confident footing once more, all these years later.
The movie takes place at a time in the future when gigantic prison colonies have been constructed, apparently to exploit slave labor, although of course nobody ever seems to do any actual work in such colonies; they spend most of their time modeling bizarre costumes, and engaging in gladiatorial bloodshed.
A prisoner named Robbins (Ray Liotta) is taken to a futuristic colony run by a sadistic warden (Michael Lerner). He arrives by streamlined monorail at the prison, which towers like a city of the future over the surrounding desert sands. Public transportation buffs may ask themselves how many prisoners you'd have to transport every day to make a monorail economical. But never mind; This location is not where the rest of the movie is going to be set.
Robbins is quickly established as a vicious, proud fighting machine. After he clashes with the warden (in a scene which should logically end with his death), he's banished to a jungle island named Absolom, inhabited by two warring clans of prisoners: The Insiders, a civilized group who have organized themselves along the lines of medieval craft guilds, and Marek's Men, savage outlaws led by the embittered Marek (Stuart Wilson).
Much is made of the need to keep the activities on this island secret from spy satellites. Perhaps the original novel, The Penal Colony, by Richard Herley, explains why. Robbins fights his way out of the jungle and into the hands of Marek, who, like all tribal leaders in this genre, spends most of his workday presiding over elaborately choreographed fights to the death among his subjects.