There are moments throughout The Great Wall where you can see the movie that legendary director Yimou Zhang (Hero, Coming Home) was trying to make. At the core of this silly, dismissable monster tale is a lovely parable about the coming together of East and West and of finding enough common ground to work together despite the chasms of cultural differences—which are, really, mostly matters of perception. This Zhang’s-eye-view of The Great Wall is a movie filled with stunning beauty, sweeping landscape shots peppered by awe-inspiring choreography and played out in breathtaking urgency. It is, frankly, a movie I’d love to see.
As to the movie we were given? Well, it’s not the smoldering trash heap it probably could’ve been. With Zhang at the helm it’s almost, kind of, good. Kind of, but not quite. It’s a film dumbed down by the conventions of American cinema, filled with needless exposition and, of course, gratuitous explosions, the two things that American audiences just can’t seem to get enough of.
Which is fine. As far as mindless escapism is concerned, The Great Wall certainly exists. It’s totally a thing that you can stare at blankly for almost two hours and then forget about immediately. That’s the backbone of the movie industry, really, and there are definitely movies within this niche that far surpass this one in terms of sheer badness. Unlike other films of this ilk, you might actually find yourself staring in wonder at the beauty of a particular shot, reveling in the pure cinema it often achieves.
For the rest of the time, however, you’ll be shockingly unmoved. It’s hard to even muster up a fraction of the pre-release rage over whitewashing as the plot unfolds, which is kind of disappointing. It’s less “white people save the day” than “white people stumble onto something they couldn’t possibly understand, and fail their way through it.” Oh, white people.
Matt Damon (of Matt Damon fame) and Pedro Pascal (of getting his face crushed on Game of Thrones fame) play the white people in question, a fact which makes more sense when you realize Pascal is a Spaniard to Damon’s, um, Irishman? Scot? (At any rate, there’s an accent.) They’re traders wandering the vast Chinese desert, alternately facing off against a band of roving Mongols and a group of unseen monsters until they literally stumble on the Great Wall (sure, you can totally miss it). The pair are taken prisoner by the Chinese army, led by Commander Lin Mae (Tian Jing, Kong: Skull Island) and General Shao (Hanyu Zhang, Operation Mekong). After determining that the two are, in fact, simple traders on the totally innocent mission to acquire “black powder” (gunpowder) they’re let in on the fact that the Great Wall was constructed to keep a swarming horde of monsters who attack every 60 years or so from entering the country. Also, Willem Dafoe is there, for some reason.
It plays out about like you’d expect—there are differences that seem insurmountable, but must be surmounted if they’re going to win. Respect is earned grudgingly by all parties until, in the end, everyone realizes that these people aren’t so different from themselves, when you think about it. There are less noble ideals to strive for, narratively, to be sure.
If only the script weren’t so dumb and half-assed. The Great Wall reads like a half-decent idea that got banged out as a draft and approved as is. Themes are touched, but never expounded upon, and the dialogue is devoid of subtext or meaning. That’s fine, if surface level is the ideal, and as far as surface level is concerned, you could absolutely do worse.
What’s disheartening is that there is enough good—sometimes great—within the film and its ideas that the bad, or even just the lackluster, feels all the worse. When Zhang hits, it’s often stunning; when he doesn’t, you’re left with little to see but the glaring faults, the ill-formed CGI, and a hastily thrown together script.
Madness, is what it is; especially when you consider how great it could’ve been. Zhang is a director who’s earned the label “visionary” over a long and brilliant career. It’s a testament to this truth that The Great Wall had any high points at all, considering its script. If only more of his vision could have peaked through. Sadly, we’re left with only with a beautifully shot quagmire of mediocrity that’s equally far from both the genius, and the trash, it otherwise might have been.
The Great Wall is now playing in theaters everywhere.