After watching this film you’re going to feel dumb. I bet you thought the Great Wall Of China was built to protect the north of the country from human invaders. Nope, it was to stop alien dinosaurs attacking and eventually becoming unstoppable.
Set hundreds of years ago, William (Matt Damon) gets mixed up in this after he and his friend, Tovar (Pedro Pascal) head towards China looking to steal/trade for the fabled ‘black powder’. They are attacked by one of the alien dinosaurs, known as Taotie, and soon after are captured by the Chinese military at the Great Wall.
The Chinese are suspicious of these foreigners, but intrigued by William’s story of managing to kill one of the monsters. Soon William and Tovar are involved in the protection of the Wall from hordes of Taotie that emerge every 60 years to feed their queen. Not that the Chinese have been sitting around waiting for Westerners to save them, as they have impressive techniques of attack and defence that William has never seen before. However, the sheer numbers attacking this time may mean they’ll be overwhelmed.
With the help of the beautiful and skilled Commander Lin Mae (Tian Jing), William begins to realise that after a lifetime of skulduggery and backstabbing, he may have found something that’s genuinely worth fighting for.
Despite the presence of Matt Damon, this is a genuinely Chinese movie, and at $135 million it’s the most expensive one ever made. It was also designed as perhaps the ultimate expression so far of the growing importance of China to the worldwide film industry, and also as an attempt to somewhat address the fact that while Hollywood movies have seen growing success in China, the reverse hasn’t been true. Bringing in House Of Flying Daggers and Hero director Yimou Zhang must have also seemed like a smart idea, who makes his first film primarily in English with The Great Wall.
Unfortunately though, it’s a movie that’s less than the sum of its parts. Vast amounts of time and money have obviously been spent of the visuals, special effects and stunts, so that purely on a visual level it has plenty of grandeur and spectacle. Unfortunately though, the storyline is hokey to the extreme. That might have been forgivable, but the rules of how the Taotie work are so lazy, contrived and convenient, that it treats the audience as idiots. That becomes particularly apparent at the end, when a ‘rule’ is revealed that allows things to be tied up neatly, but is actually pretty illogical. Indeed, I can remember writing something similar in a story when I was about 10, and even at the time thinking it was a bit too convenient and no one would believe it.
The movie also attempts to add a bit of fun and human connection with the camaraderie between William and Tovar, but it’s painful to watch, both because Matt Damon’s accent suggest he could be from anywhere between Ireland and India (I’m presuming its meant to be the former), and because there’s zero chemistry. Indeed, these scenes tend to suck the life out of the film.
Better is the relationship between William and Lin Mae, where there’s far more chemistry, and it allows them to act as equals, rather than as a stereotypical romance, or with Lin as someone thankful that a westerner has come to save them. Indeed, the one place where the script is very careful is in avoiding the cliché’s of the great white hero who must teach the natives how to save themselves. In fact it’s almost the opposite, with suggestions that the alien dinosaurs are actually a metaphor for the type of foreigners who come in and take what they want without respect or understanding.
There’s plenty of promise in The Great Wall and a lot of effort has gone into the action and spectacle, but its undermined by a slack script and hokey story, which could have been so much more. Hopefully though, it won’t put China off making more movies that have a better chance of finding success outside Asia.
Overall Verdict: If you can ignore the many flaws and just take in the spectacle, The Great Wall certainly has something to offer. However, it’s more likely you’ll end up feeling that this fusion of east and west hasn’t ended up with the best of either.
Reviewer: Tim Isaac