Editor’s Note: The Great Wall opens in wide theatrical release today, February 17, 2017.
“Save us, Matt Damon. You’re our only hope.” That phrase or something like it uttered by a studio executive may have helped to convince the Oscar-winning, Oscar-nominated Damon to headline Zhang Yimou’s (House of Flying Daggers, Hero, The Story of Qiu Ju, Raise the Red Lantern, Red Sorghum) action-fantasy-adventure, The Great Wall. That and whatever amount Damon received as part of his contract for services rendered. The promise of international stardom, new and/or renewed, not to mention Damon’s presumably sizable fee, however, shouldn’t have been enough to convince Damon to appear in The Great Wall. The whitewashing and Yimou’s involvement aside, The Great Wall suffers from an underwritten, underdeveloped screenplay, one-dimensional, depth-free characters, unmemorable, leaden dialogue, and bland, uninspired CGI monsters. As a feature-length advertisement for China’s cultural values (e.g., self-sacrifice, loyalty, martial arts prowess), The Great Wall comes closer to succeeding, if not for cynical, jaded Western audiences, then for Chinese audiences eager to see themselves and their (fictionalized) history depicted in a positive light.
It doesn’t help that the imagination-deficient screenplay lifts the “alien horde led by a queen or master” plot device from other, much better films (e.g., Ender’s Game, Edge of Tomorrow, Starship Troopers, Aliens) or awful ones worth forgetting (e.g., Independence Day: Resurgence).
When we meet Damon’s white savior character, William (Damon, inexplicably adopting an on-again, off-again semi-Irish accent), he’s a dirty, bedraggled, bearded mercenary, fleeing with what’s left of his men across the desert, desperate to find the black powder (gunpowder) that will make his fortune if and when he returns to Western Europe. We learn little about William’s past, but what we do learn via dialogue reveals a man practically born to battle, adopted and raised by mercenaries until he became one himself, fighting for whatever flag would clothe and feed him. After a nighttime attack by a mysterious creatures leaves only William and Tovar (Pedro Pascal, Game of Thrones) as the only survivors, they flee across the mountains, stopping only when they encounter a heavily fortified garrison built to defend the great wall of the title. They avoid summary execution thanks to their encounter with the mystery monster: William’s seemingly random decision to keep the monster’s hacked-off hand as a souvenir convinces the garrison’s leaders of the truth of their story.
William and Tovar only escape imprisonment, however, when a horde of the mystery monsters, identified as the “Tao Tei” by the army’s chief strategist, Wang (Andy Lau), attacks the garrison in multiple waves. William and Tovar initially witness the garrison’s well calibrated, well choreographed response to the attack before they join in the festivities, proving themselves equal to the Chinese in terms of martial skill and bravery. The attack and counterattack gives Yimou the perfect opportunity to orchestrate masses of men and machinery into a coherent action sequence (Yimou also directed the opening ceremony of the 2008 Beijing Olympics). Yimou’s precise, deft direction of the attack and the counter-attack falls prey, however, to an unconvincing clash of CGI monsters and the garrison’s brightly colored forces (post-production 3D conversion doesn’t help matters either). Yimou’s signature visual style, a style cultivated over several decades directing increasingly complex spectacles, repeatedly gives way to overly familiar in-the-PC-box CGI battles, specifically The Two Towers more than a decade ago and World of Warcraft just last year. The comparisons to the earlier films aren’t kind nor should they be.
The whitewashing and Yimou’s involvement aside, The Great Wall suffers from an underwritten, underdeveloped screenplay, one-dimensional, depth-free characters, unmemorable, leaden dialogue, and bland, uninspired CGI monsters.
It doesn’t help that the imagination-deficient screenplay credited to Carlo Bernard, Doug Miro, and Tony Gilroy (from a story credited to Max Brooks, Edward Zwick, and Marshall Herskovitz) lifts the “alien horde led by a queen or master” plot device from other, much better films (e.g., Ender’s Game, Edge of Tomorrow, Starship Troopers, Aliens) or awful ones worth forgetting (e.g., Independence Day: Resurgence). It makes the ultimate goal, defeating the monsters (likely aliens transported here inadvertently in a crashed ship or meteor), a relatively easy, obtainable one (kill the queen, destroy the horde). The lizard-like aliens fall into the realm of generic monsters too. Outside of the queen and her personal guard, it’s just one generic, spittle-flecked CGI alien after another (after another) rushing the ramparts and killing soldiers identifiable primarily through the color of their cloaks and their animal-themed armor. The battle orders make little sense either. The garrison’s leader, General Shao (Hanyu Zhang), and his second-in-command/potential romantic interest for William, Commander Lin Mae (Tian Jing), keep their most powerful weapons in reserve, in part because they don’t to reveal their secrets to the Westerners fighting alongside them.
Thankfully, the hints of a romantic relationship between William and Lin Mae remain just that: hints. They bond, break up, and bond again, but not over their physical attraction to each other. Instead, they represent the polar opposite in terms of values. He’s selfish and self-centered, interested only in what the world can give him or what he can take from the world. Lin Mae embodies the values of self-sacrifice, selflessness, and loyalty, cardinal Chinese values. It’s not long before Lin Mae’s words, buttressed by her actions, begin to erode William’s resolve to escape at the first available opportunity with Tovar and another Westerner, Ballard (Willem Dafoe, wasted in a thankless, throwaway role), who’s spent 25 years living among the Chinese, conveniently teaching Lin Mae the rudiments of the English language all the while lusting over the garrison’s reserves of black powder.
Hindered by an underwritten script, whitewashing and boring CGI, The Great Wall succeeds only as a feature-length advertisement for China’s cultural values, such as self-sacrifice and loyalty.