Review: The Great Wall

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Yimou Zhang, stop doing collaborations with America, right now.

When two European bandits stumble across China’s greatest defensive achievement, The Great Wall, while looking for “black powder”, they discover a terrible and world-ending secret.

Well this was pretty dumb.
I think the film drops the ball almost immediately with two small points. We open with Matt Damon’s William fleeing on horseback from bandits, alongside his allies principally among them being Game of Throne‘s star Pedro Pascal’s Tovar. Immediately someone in their number is shot with an arrow, the shaft clearly hitting them in the front of the leg while they are being chased from behind. The other laughably strange moment is when the two men “stumble” across the Great Wall of China. A structure so large it can be seen from orbit, but they only just find it when in range of the Wall’s archers.

We haven’t even got around to the aliens from space.

Now don’t get me wrong, I like films that clash genre tropes together. Check out a film from 2008 called Outlander – its about a space soldier teaming up with Vikings to kill an alien monstrosity, its pretty awesome! But boy, does something not work in The Great Wall.
It could be because it is by Yimou Zhang, the visionary director behind House of Flying Daggers and Hero, two films that are exceptional in their cinematography and graceful combat sequences. While The Great Wall does have some nice design work (the Chinese warriors have some nice armour and The Wall has inventive and brutal defenses built into it) they are fighting monsters. Big, unimaginative, quadruped CGI monsters who all look the same. It is very easy to get lost in the combat sequences with identical monsters and warriors only identified with colour-coded armours. This film has none of Yimou Zhang’s graceful camera work.

Matt Damon seems to be disinterested in what’s happening, and the accent he has at the beginning (Irish??) is completely gone by the final scene. I didn’t have any sense of urgency or any sense of who the characters were. The most believable acting is early on when Damon and Pascal are both looking at the initial monster attack with lost bemusement. I truly believed they didn’t know what they were looking at. Also Willem Dafoe is in this film. I am not sure why though.

I think had the film truly embraced its silly concept; throw us some insane monster designs, give them more of a story than “a meteor fell and they appeared”, have dynastic warriors leave The Wall and fight the aliens on their own ground. Then we could have had a true guilty pleasure movie. Dynastic Starship Troopers sounds awesome to me!
But as it stands, the film’s third act feels very disjointed with characters who were perhaps important being thrown to the wind while bigger events unfold elsewhere.
There is a real sense that the film was written on the fly; events just happen, the story commits to things without earning the right to do so. Perhaps the worst offender is when one (if not the) commander of The Wall dies. It is such a random scene, no build up, we don’t know the guy, he maybe said ten words and frowned a lot, but we then get a huge funeral scene!

The Great Wall has some nice design work, cool weapons and a lot of extras on set giving it scale, but it feels like a huge misstep compared to the director’s past works. An American/Chinese collaboration in every sense; they forgot to give us compelling characters or at least fun characters. Or better aliens.

Maybe it is someone’s guilty pleasure, but I just didn’t feel anything. It is very stiff tonally, neither a gorgeous eastern film nor a bombastic American cheese fest, it just sort of… is.

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Additional Marshmallows: So… these monsters are sensitive to magnetic fields and our heroes have one magnetic rock. Why did it take the entire runtime of the film for them to realise throwing the rock at the alien queen would solve all their problems!? Fashion the rock into arrow tips for goodness sake!
Oh I remember, random Emperor aide materialises out of nowhere and takes the rock away during the second act…

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