With a budget of $150 million, The Great Wall, directed by acclaimed director Zhang Yimou and starring Matt Damon, is the most expensive Hollywood-China co-production in its history. You would think the budget would ensure its success, but not here. The film relies too much on action and special effects but not much on story.
At the start of the film, we are introduced to two rogue mercenaries, William Garin (Matt Damon) and Pero Tovar (Pedro Pascal). They are on a search for “Black Powder” and while on this quest, they stumble upon these giant, komodo dragon-like creatures, which are being fended off by The Nameless Order – warriors that are defending The Great Wall of China. Garin and Tavor soon meet the army of warriors and the secret war they have been fighting against these alien creatures, which they must prevent from reaching the city. The Nameless Order is a very organized force but these creatures are not as naïve as they previously believed.
Once Garin and Tavor discover The Nameless Order, we are immediately placed in an intense battle. This battle scene is very well done and would rival the wars seen on The Two Towers. This really hyped me up for the movie right away and the visuals really sucked me in with just how beautiful everything is shot. The CGI creatures look good and the different color armor the warriors wear, depending on their faction within the army, looked beautiful on screen. The action was intense and introduces us to some characters along the way. Once the battle is over however, the movie starts to take a big dip.
This is a Chinese movie with a majority Chinese cast and I understand the thought process behind casting Damon for the film for the U.S. market but his character is completely meaningless to the film. He comes in with the skill of being an extremely accurate archer but the bad reputation of no fighting for a single purpose and just being a gun for hire. Throughout the film, there really is not much character growth for him on screen either. He does not move up the ranks within the army or make it clear that there is no way of them defeated these creatures without him. It seemed like they had the situation under control before he came and even if he had not come along the outcome would have probably been the same. It is just plain to see that his character was just created to have a famous American or European actor to portray and help sell tickets.
The rest of the characters were not that much better either. I would say, the character that had the most interesting story throughout the film was Commander Lin, played by Jing Tian. She outshined Damon in every scene they were in together and had the most to offer the audience as far as a memorable character. When she takes on new responsibilities in the second half of the movie, she plays her new role convincingly. One could make the argument that she should have been the main focus of the film instead of Matt Damon. Even though he is the bigger box office draw, the movie would have been a little better with her character being front and center.
The story itself is a common tale of an “alien” attack. When they try to explain the existence of these creatures in the middle of the movie, it still left me with some confusion as to what was going on. It also did not really state how long they have been fighting these creatures and how they still have a large army if these aliens are so powerful and have large numbers. They explain that there is a queen that controls the herd and she later turns into the main target, which she should have been the whole time. They always tease the intelligence of the creatures by showing that they know how to work together and save each other from being captured. The creatures seem to really not want any of their own to be capture alive but they do not really go into why that is. The ending managed to frustrate me immensely due to the, way too convenient, effect the battle with the queen seemed to have on every single alien creature at the end of the story.
The Great Wall was a visual spectacle with tremendous battle scenes and top of the line CGI that pulls you in whenever it appears on screen. Everything this movie had going for it in the special effects department is the complete opposite when it comes to the narrative portion of the film. The Matt Damon casting was completely wasted and the story is as generic as they come.
The Great Wall is in a weird paradox, since people want better quality foreign films to be produced and for that to become a reality, at least in China, this movie would have to not be a box office bust. Unfortunately, it deservingly seems to not be meeting the numbers the studios were projecting and we can only hope now that this does not deter from another huge budget collaboration between the U.S. and China that will actually result in a good movie.