The Great Wall is an epic fantasy alternate history monster film that reimagines the Great Wall of China as mankind’s last line of defense against a massive horde of rampaging monsters. The movie is a joint venture by American and Chinese film production companies, is directed by renowned Chinese filmmaker Zhang Yimou, and features an entirely Chinese cast, save for Hollywood stars Matt Damon, Willem Dafoe, and Pedro Pascal.
In it, a group of mercenaries of various Western nationalities travel to Song dynasty China in search for black powder (a.k.a. gunpowder). But due to the dangers along the way, only two of them – William Garin (Matt Damon) and Pero Tovar (Pedro Pascal) – survived the journey. They stumble upon the Great Wall – which garrisons Imperial China’s secret, elite military force called the Nameless Order, led by General Shao (Zhang Hanyu), Strategist Wang (Andy Lau), and Commander Lin Mae (Jing Tian) – and soon discover why it was built: to repel an invasion of alien monsters called the Taotie.
I think the premise of this film is pretty awesome. I love the idea of centering one of the wonders of the ancient world on a mythological “secret war” story. I was a bit bummed out, though, because the origin of the monster is revealed to be from outer space, via a meteorite. I would have liked it more – because it would logistically and narratively make more sense – if they had been from some sort of magical portal, in which the Great Wall is magically in its “border” of, and by magical logic, the monsters have to break through it in order to access the human realm. Because if it wasn’t like this, then why didn’t the Taotie also move westwards instead of just focusing eastwards (if there was an explanation for this in the movie, I missed it)?
I really enjoyed the parts of the plot that involves this colorful Chinese army, manning the Great Wall and fighting off the Taotie. I especially liked how the Nameless Order is composed of different groups (Crane Troop, Tiger Troop, Bear Troop, Eagle Troop, and Deer Troop) that have different specialties. However, when you think about it, some of the battle tactics that the Nameless Order employed are extremely stupid (which are likely just there in order to be “badass”). And then there are some cleverly effective battle tactics that were bafflingly unused in earlier battle sequences; it’s utterly infuriating why the Order didn’t opt for them in the first place when they had been available from the start.
Another thing that bummed me about the Wall is that, in real life, it’s more than 20,000 kilometers long. Hence, I was expecting that the scale of the war is also somewhat similar to that. But it seems every battle is only focused in one particular part of the Wall.
However, I would have still had a fun time with this movie if it all had been Wall battles, if it stressed on making a thoroughly entertaining spectacle. But it gets significantly bogged down by clichéd character arcs, persistent laziness (or outright refusal) to make something excitingly creative out of its ambitious concept, and poor narrative choices. By the time its final act regrettably shifts the setting to the Imperial Capital, I was completely bored of the movie.
It also doesn’t help that Matt Damon is at his blandest in this movie; I sensed no charisma from him. But I was happy that Pedro Pascal is in it. Loved his performance in Game of Thrones, and he was an appealing presence in this movie. Hope to see him have more movie roles.
Overall, The Great Wall has its fun parts (specifically, in the first half). But it’s too vapid to become the genuine epic it could have been.