If there was a competition to make a film perfectly destined to fail in the United States, I can’t think of a single contender able to even come close to touching The Great Wall. Despite an insanely large marketing budget, I haven’t spoken to a single person who was interested in this movie. Something about it (or perhaps everything about it) just turns American moviegoers away. Luckily for you, I saw it so you don’t have to. The film I was given was…well it’s really something else.
The Great Wall is set in fictionalized version of Ancient China in which a Chinese Army protects the country from a horde of lizard dragons. That’s it. That’s really all it’s about. I tried to think about something else to help explain it, something beyond a single logline, but there’s really not much more to it. I might as well get right into it, the script for this movie is really, really bad. It was my biggest problem with the film and was glaringly apparent right from the beginning when I realized this film doesn’t have any exposition at all. Some films fall into the trap of relying too heavily on expositional dialogue, but this film made the daring decision to forego this problem entirely and just present a movie with absolutely no explanation of what’s going on. At least not at the beginning, anyway. We don’t even learn Matt Damon’s name until about 25 minutes into the runtime. (It’s William, by the way, I just looked it up.) Nor do we learn about what business he and his Spanish buddy have in China until even later. The both of them play European “traders” who have ventured to the east in search of the legendary black powder, and get captured and eventually roped into this bizarre supernatural battle against these beasts known as the Tao Tei. (I looked it up, Tao Tei means nothing whatsoever.) For anyone who is worried about this film being whitewashed or resulting in a “White Savior” storyline, fret not, as Matt Damon is just one character in a film that is very, very Chinese. One character of a nondisclosed nationality who speaks with an unplaceable but very distinctly American accent. Do with that what you will. I mean, listen, this film threw historical accuracy out the window from the opening videogame-esque narration in which they, for some asinine reason, felt the need to clarify that this story is fictional. Most all of the other characters in this film are Chinese and are played by Chinese actors. Matt Damon befriends a Chinese girl (played by Jing Tian), who, through some unexplained inexplicable reason, is the general of an entire army, despite being, to all outward appearances, around eighteen years old. I misspoke earlier when I said everyone else is Chinese. Willem Dafoe is also in this movie as another mysterious white guy in a surprise appearance that caused me to audibly gasp in the theater upon seeing his face. Don’t get too excited about his presence though because he wins the coveted award of being the worst in the film. Lucky him.
The best thing The Great Wall has going for it is its visuals. It’s directed by the visionary Yimou Zhang, who directed Hero, one of the most visually beautiful films ever produced. There is some truly stellar imagery in this film, the kind that only comes from an artist’s eye. The only problem is where Zhang did compose some gorgeous shots, he also really overused the same shots over and over again. There’s the obligatory “Helm’s Deep” shot of the swarms of demons attacking the wall that is mimicked repeatedly throughout the film. And the absurd 3D-pandering shot of the monster launching at the camera in slow motion is used more times than you would ever believe possible. This disappointed me because it really overshadowed all of the genuinely impressive feats of mise-en-scene that he was able to do. If we’re being realistic here, basically everything overshadowed the skill that the director brought to the table. I can’t dance around it anymore, this film is a mess. An absolute mess.
The monsters are uncreative and are animated with poor but forgivable special effects. The physical sets look impressive in wide shots, but up close they look incredibly fabricated. The characters are shallower than a glass of water and have little to no motivations or chemistry. Matt Damon doesn’t appear to have a clue what he’s doing in the movie. Probably just accepting a paycheck, I suppose. The action has its moments but ultimately comes across as bloated and tiresome. The film has a relatively low runtime but feels ages upon ages longer as each scene slugs along with some really amateurish pacing. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, the screenplay is absolutely subpar. About halfway through the film it feels like the screenwriter suddenly remembered that at Film School they told him that his narrative needed plot points, so he just shoved some random scenes in that are designed to elevate the story, but they come immediately out of nowhere and dematerialize quicker and with less warning than from whence they came. And it all culminates into a third act that is one of the most absurd things I’ve observed in a while. Of course, this screenplay, like all muddled and myopic films was written by three different people, just to add fuel to the idea that two heads aren’t always being better than one. If I’m being fair, I did find myself somewhat attentive while watching the film, although I do have to recognize that this was purely out of curiosity and confusion rather than being a reaction to the content I was being given. I would love to say that I enjoyed this movie, but I really can’t. I’m sorry, but it just felt like a distorted mosaic of incomprehensible scenes, rather than a coherent and cohesive piece of cinema. This is the biggest Chinese-produced film to date, and while it will without a doubt make a king’s ransom in its home country, it really just isn’t good enough to make any headway in the states. It’s a shame, but I can’t bring myself to call it anything other than a failure. To the filmmakers, I say try again, and to you reading this, I would advise you to spend your time and money elsewhere. You will be alright missing The Great Wall.
All images are from The Great Wall, from Universal Studios.