Oh well, at least it looks good. Unfortunately, that’s about the only positive that can really be said about this oddball fantasy adventure epic. The Great Wall has a lot of talent both in front of and behind the camera in the form of Matt Damon and director Zhang Yimou (Raise the Red Lantern, House of Flying Daggers), but this effort has kiddie Saturday matinee written all over it. And not in an amusing way. It feels clunky and despite the constant large-scale battles occurring onscreen, never builds up much in the way of tension or excitement.
The goofy plot involves a pair of mercenaries named William (Matt Damon) and Tovar (Pedro Pascal), visiting China in the hopes of obtaining black powder and selling the material to high bidders in Europe. Unfortunately, their task becomes complicated when they encounter The Nameless Order, a group of elite soldiers guarding The Great Wall of China and defending the country from a secret foe. Known as the Taoties, they are alien creatures who crashed to Earth in a meteor thousands of years ago. They rise every 60 years, killing everything they come into contact with. William teams with a young Commander Lin Mae (Tian Jing) and along the way begins to feel a sense of duty and honor to save the world from this evil force and abandon his self-serving interests.
As mentioned, this is a lavish and expensive production, reportedly costing between $135 and $150 million dollars, making it the most expensive film ever shot in China. Admittedly, the visuals are impressive. There are some beautiful desert locations used and many of the sets, including the Capital and the Emperor’s quarters, pop off of the screen with bright reds and yellows on display. There are also some interesting images of the Great Wall, with characters leaping over the sides attached to ropes and bungee jumping down to fight. The army costuming is equally impressive with intense and vibrant colors.
As for the Taoties, they aren’t nearly as compelling as hoped. The monsters certainly bear great resemblance to the antagonists of films like Alien and Pitch Black. But the big difference here is that they are never obscured or hidden in shadow. In fact, they’re almost dog-like lizards with green, toothy faces and a streak of hair running along their backs. Most of the attacks occur in daylight and the CGI creations are freely shown in bright light. It ends up making the monsters appear phony and less intimidating with every passing scene.
Sadly, every time one of the heroes opens their mouth, they’re saddled with awkward, wooden dialogue. Most of the film’s attempts at humor with one-liners fall completely flat and character development is minimal at best. Another visitor from Europe living with The Nameless Order, Sir William (Willem Dafoe), feels completely underwritten and underutilized. He doesn’t even need to be in the movie. The theme is also stated pretty bluntly by one of the characters, who explains that the Taoties were sent by the Gods to smite the Emperor for his greed. It’s a decent enough idea, but it’s delivered in far too on-the-nose a manner.
This is the type of movie that I may have enjoyed as a 10-year old. However, as an adult, the screenplay fails to develop its characters or create a chilling enough monster to make one care about the proceedings. Even worse, it isn’t exciting or fun enough to enjoy as a pure popcorn spectacle. The Great Wall may be the biggest production ever featuring the impressive landmark, but there are too many cracks in the foundation to earn it a recommendation.