Film Review: The Great Wall

by Chad Liffmann on February 17, 2017

White male hero leads dumpster fire movie to a forgettable fate.

Do we LOOK like we’re having fun?

I chose the above picture for very specific reasons. I could’ve chosen a more beautiful shot of a heroic looking Matt Damon atop The Great Wall of China. But no, I preferred this one for the way it captures the feeling one has while watching The Great Wall — the feeling of trudging through the sewer, acting unfazed while knowing deep down that the journey will result in nothing but a sh*tty mess. If you were considering watching The Great Wall as a fun activity this weekend (or at some point), let me save you the two hours you’d never get back. First, The Great Wall is offensive for its white savior narrative. Second, it’s poorly shot and edited. And third, it features cartoonish special effects and thus can’t even manage to string together two minutes of respectable cinema without an embarrassing element restarting the clock.

The Great Wall of China took 1700 years to build, says the opening subtitles. The text goes on to explain that there are many existing facts, and also legends, explaining why the wall was built. “This is one of the legends” is the last subtitle. I don’t consider myself a well-versed historian of medieval China, but I’m fairly certain that the idea of thousands of giant alien iguana monsters invading China was NOT one of the legends about why the wall was built. If I’m mistaken, please correct me. Of course, the writers could be simply claiming that since they came up with the idea, it’s therefore a legit legend? Anyway, that’s the “legend” at play here. Matt Damon and Pedro Pascal play William and Tovar, two mercenaries searching for black powder who get captured by the Nameless Order (sometime during the Song Dynasty) and end up aiding in the defense of the Great Wall against the monstrous hordes of reptilian extra terrestrials. Wouldn’t you know it, William (Damon) doesn’t just aid, he basically saves the day. Hooray for white washing! When The Great Wall was first announced, it created a lot of controversy due to the white male lead in a Chinese film about Chinese history, but that media storm was quelled slightly once audiences learned of the sci-fi element, and that the film was not meant to be historically accurate.

And yet, Damon and his terrible, unidentifiable accent aren’t even the worst part of the movie. The film touts three screenwriting credits and three story credits. Red flag! Sadly, it’s quite easy to understand how this disastrous mess came to fruition when you combine the works of the writers together: Max Brooks (World War Z), Edward Zwick (Glory), and Marshall Herskovitz (The Last Samurai) with story credits, and Tony Gilroy (Bourne movies), with Doug Miro and Carlo Bernard getting screenplay credits. The latter two wrote Prince of Persia and The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, and I can’t help but assume that they had the most influence in the final product. It’s also unfortunate that the story is such a bomb because The Great Wall is helmed by Chinese visionary director Yimou Zhang, who has a long list of accolades, the ones most known to American audiences being Hero (2002), House of Flying Daggers (2004) and Curse of the Golden Flower (2006). I want to give a quick shout out to the extravagant and colorful costumes in The Great Wall, an area Zhang and his art directors consistently excel at, and the screen presence of Tian Jing, who plays Commander Lin Mae. Her beauty and talent is held in close framing, but the chaos ends up enveloping her strengths. Once in a while there’s a slightly humorous line or beautifully shot moment, but otherwise it’s a total train wreck that makes very little sense. The script and direction is uninspired and uninteresting, to the point that the film is nearly unwatchable.

It’s hard to claim a film is unwatchable if the sound is of good quality. I always say that a movie can be watched comfortably if it has bad picture, but it can’t be watched comfortably if it has bad sound. But The Great Wall is different — how do you watch a movie with no purpose or explanation? Everything that takes place in The Great Wall has no purpose or lacks explanation. Why do the aliens resurface and attack every 60 years? No answer. Why don’t the Chinese use their flaying balloons more often or prepare for 60 years with the stash of black powder they have? No answer. Why do the monsters go comatose around magnets? No answer. Where is Matt Damon from? No answer. Why is Willem Dafoe in this movie? No answer. I was frustrated and anxious for resolution within a few minutes after the opening credits. To be honest, I’m not exactly sure what I expected coming into the theater. I knew from the premise and the trailers that The Great Wall wasn’t going to win any Oscars, nor would it rank within my…oh…top 1000 films of all time, but I was open to be proven wrong. And yet I was still disappointed. I almost wish it was a movie about a white male hero saving the Chinese empire from destruction without any sci-fi elements. That way I could channel my disgust in one direction, rather than multiple.

If you do end up watching The Great Wall, I suggest cheering for the alien reptiles to win. It’s more fun that way, but no, they’re not victorious.

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The Great Wall opens in theaters on Friday, 2/17.

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