I won’t pretend I didn’t go into this wary of what I’m going to call the ‘Avatar Formula’. That is, some white, Western men go to a foreign land and end up saving the natives despite being responsible for their near-destruction in the first place. But Zhang Yimou’s (House of Flying Daggers) The Great Wall isn’t that. In fact, it isn’t a lot of things.
Matt Damon (of Matt Damon Fame) and that guy who gets his head crushed in Game of Thrones season four (Pedro Pascal) are travelling through Mongolia, maybe, in search of black powder so they can kill people in the west more efficiently, when they accidentally-on-purpose stumble across the Great Wall of China. Under the command of General Shao (Zhang Hanyu), the wall itself is [wo]manned by The Nameless Order, so-called because we’re given no information about them other than that they’ve been guarding China (and therefore the whole world) against monsters known as Taoties, who they believe were sent by god to punish people for being too greedy, when really their meteorite just crash landed on Earth and they’re trying to survive, too.
Alright, cool. Now what?
With a budget of $160 million and a gross take almost double that, it’s fair to say that this is a pretty good earner. But more than anything, The Great Wall has been commended as the largest ever collaboration between Chinese and American cinema. But how? Do literally hundreds of Chinese extras equate to just two Western actors? Damon and Pascal are mercenaries, fighting for food and money, while their counterpart, Commander Lin (Jin Tian), The Nameless Order and, clearly, the entirety of China, fight for something more: trust. But trust in what? You can bet your ass it’s not the annoying, adolescent emperor, who sits in his golden palace while all his subjects get eaten. No, it’s trust in each other and a collective, collaborative effort to survive. Hmm, sounds like communism to me . And I’m by no means against that (favourite line: “Kill the queen or we all die”), but as far being an allegory for the all-consuming greed of mankind (and the West), it’s pretty weak.
The Great Wall is a video game. It’s immersive. It’s stupid. You can imagine yourself in control of its characters, running around like an idiot, madly mashing buttons and thumbing analog sticks to set off catapults and trigger giant blades that fly out of holes in the wall, cutting enemies in half. I honestly felt like I was sitting on my sofa at home, watching my housemate play badly written games on his increasingly decrepit PS3, one after the other. And I’m okay with that, if I need something to watch while I eat my dinner or smoke a joint or count the minutes until I can go to bed again.
On the other hand, The Great Wall is a beautiful, colourful show reminiscent of the 2008 Beijing Olympics. It’s all special effects, fireworks and bungee ropes. Unfortunately, the effects were pretty average and Commander Lin’s troop of bright blue, all-female soldiers provide nothing more than an exhibition of cool gymnastics, since none of them, except for Tian herself, have speaking roles. As pretty much the sole female actor to say anything (let alone in English), Tian provides the bridge between the Chinese and non-Chinese worlds, while Damon and Pascal provide the comic relief because this film doesn’t know what it wants to be.
In the end Damon and Pascal learn that identity is better than money, while Lin gets a promotion. Everything is fine. The world was saved by a badass Chinese woman which is cool, but no one you like dies because there aren’t any characters to, actually, like. The audience doesn’t become emotionally attached to anyone because this film moves too fast for character development. And yet, at just 104 minutes, it couldn’t move fast enough. I half-thought that The Great Wall would have me over-analysing and asking all kinds of critical questions in an attempt to garner something other than vertigo from watching it. I was wrong. Is it saying that walls are, actually, a good thing? Oof, dangerous territory. Thankfully no, it’s just saying that they’re pointless. People are going to die anyway so don’t bother building them. Also, Willem Dafoe’s in it…
Movie Review by Harry Gallon
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