I recently did a review for Zhang Yimou’s 2011 war drama, The Flowers of War. In that review, I mention that Yimou is a very respectable film maker who has an especially strong talent for filming what I believe to be some of the most beautiful looking movies I’ve ever seen. His latest film is The Great Wall, a monster movie that involves protecting the Imperial City from creatures hell bent on destroying civilization as we know it. That combined with Yimou’s colorful and sweeping directorial style kind of made this a must see for me. Well, all I can say is that this film definitely looks great. That’s pretty much where the compliments end.
William (Matt Damon) and Pero (Pedro Pascal) are two mercenaries scouring the East looking for “black powder,” which we now know as gunpowder. During their search, they end up at the Great Wall of China and are questioned about their intentions immediately upon their arrival. The two partners soon learn why the soldiers at the wall are so concerned about their motives. During a seemingly quiet afternoon, the wall is raided by alien monsters called the Tao Tie, whose goal is to penetrate the wall and continue on to the Imperial City. It doesn’t take long for William to come to a decision as to wether he wants to escape with Pero and another Englishman, Sir Ballard (Willem Dafoe), or if he would rather stay and defend the Great Wall with the newly appointed general, Lin Mae (Jing Tian).
I was excited for this movie for multiple reasons. First off, I was pumped to see Zhang Yimou tackle a big budget monster movie and have his style painted all over the movie. I was also just pumped to see another monster movie from Legendary, which has pretty much become the monster movie company for America. In these ways, the movie does succeed. When battles start happening, I got really into it. The special effects look kind of cartoony, but for some reason, that didn’t really bother me. I was taken aback by Yimou’s use of color and framing scenes to make them look as epic as possible. One of these shots in particular happened in the very first battle where you can see most of the battle in one super wide shot. Another really cool thing are the different regiments of the soldiers and the uniforms they wear to identify themselves. Honestly, in terms of style and scope, this movie stands tall.
Like I said before, that’s pretty much where all of the good stuff ends. The Great Wall really isn’t all that good of a movie despite having a really cool premise. My biggest problem was the characters. I haven’t seen such poor development and writing in a really long time. Any scene that didn’t involve a battle or special effect of some kind fell flat. Like completely, utterly flat. It’s incredible how an epic period piece featuring alien monsters attacking the Great Wall of China could be so boring. There are a few characters worth something, but that’s not saying to much. William’s partner Pero has a good amount of one liners and a story that at least attempts to go somewhere before that’s shut down by some idiotic decisions from the writers. Lin Mae is also a pretty cool character who feels the most human out of anyone else. The worst offender of characters not worth anything is Sir Ballard. If you were to take Willem Dafoe out of this movie, nothing would be different. He’s completely wasted here.
I was also really bothered by the acting in this movie, but part of this also has to fall on the writers. There was so much clunky and awkward dialogue in this movie which only made me more distracted during the down time that I’ve already complained was boring enough. Like I said before, the only exceptions from this are Pero and Lin Mae. They weren’t perfect, but they were better than the rest. Honestly though, I was mostly shocked at how flat and uninspired Matt Damon was. I didn’t know until the end of the movie that he was supposed to be European, and I still don’t know exactly where he’s supposed to be from. His accent is on and off throughout the whole movie, and the way he delivers his lines is cringeworthy. Aside from his weird accent, he uses this over the top tough guy voice that wore thin on me after the second line of dialogue he had.
The Great Wall is a very disappointing movie. Throughout its run time, I saw a lot of hope for potential, but nothing really came of it. I will say that this is a fantastic looking movie with cool creature design and some excellent use of lighting and costume design. Everything else from the characters and their development to the structure of the narrative is flat, recycled, or just plain boring. As a monster movie, it works at the most basic of levels. As a movie to be appreciated and viewed for something more than that, it’s a failure.
Final Grade: C-