THE GREAT WALL (2017) is certainly a good-looking monster movie.
The costumes, the colors, the photography are all vibrant and stunning. Yup, everything looks good in this new Matt Damon action/fantasy flick except for one thing: the monsters. And since this is a monster movie, that’s a problem.
In the distant past, a group of European mercenaries travelling in China in search of “magical” black powder that creates fire find themselves exhausted and weak. One night, they are attacked by some unseen creatures. One of the mercenaries, William (Matt Damon) manages to chop off one of the creature’s hands. The creatures flee, but only William and one other man Tovar (Pedro Pascal) survive the attack.
William and Tovar continue onward but are soon captured by a massive army and brought into a fortress behind a great wall. The authorities there are most interested in the severed hand in William’s possession, and at first they do not believe the story that William killed one of the creatures on his own, but soon they discover he has a magnet, which they believe can be used to render the creature harmless.
The fortress is soon attacked by a horde of vicious reptilian creatures. After a brutal battle, the creatures eventually retreat. William and Tovar meet another European man, Ballard (Willem Dafoe) who tells them he’s been a prisoner there for many years, as the Chinese refuse to let anyone leave. Ballard tells them that he knows where they keep the black powder, and if they work together, they can steal the powder and escape.
However, during his time inside the Great Wall, William becomes friends with the leader of the army, Commander Lin Mae (Tian Jing) and he finds himself growing more interested in helping her fight the creatures than stealing the black powder. When the creatures assemble to attack one last time, William has to decide whether or not he’s going to try to escape or remain and fight.
Hmm. Take the black powder which you’ve travelled half-way across the world to get, or stay and fight an army of vicious creatures and most likely die. It seems like an easy choice to me, but in this movie, well, that’s one of the ways the film doesn’t succeed. I didn’t believe for one second that William, this supposedly cold-hearted mercenary, would be moved to help Lin Mae so easily.
But visually, THE GREAT WALL is a real treat. The costumes for all the different factions of the Chinese army are eye-poppingly colorful, and the photography is rich and resonant. The film looks terrific.
However, as I said at the outset, the monsters do not. They’re not awful. In fact, they are actually quite cool looking. The problem is although they are cool looking, they also look fake. The CGI here looks cartoonish, and the result are creatures that are not scary at all. The scenes where we see thousands of these creatures racing towards the wall and then ascending the wall look particularly bad.
The story is so-so. The idea of monsters attacking the Great Wall of China is a good one, although it’s not handled here in a way that made it all that believable. The reason the creatures are attacking, as explained in a legend, is adequate, but the actual story is little more than an excuse to feature one battle after another. The whole mercenary storyline is somewhat interesting, made better by Matt Damon’s presence.
Carlo Bernard, Doug Miro, and Tony Gilroy wrote the screenplay. I’m guessing the lively contemporary dialogue comes from Gilroy, as he wrote the BOURNE movies, and he’s also one of the writers who worked on ROGUE ONE: A STAR WARS STORY (2016).
The cast is decent.
I like Matt Damon a lot, and his presence here only helps the movie. He also shares decent chemistry with Tian Jing. However, Damon did seem a bit old for the part. A younger protagonist would have made things more believable, especially later on when William takes part in lots of ridiculous over-the-top action sequences.
Tian Ling is also very good as Commander Lin Mae. And while she and Damon do work well together, again, had Damon been younger, their attraction to each other would have been more believable.
Pedro Pascal has the thankless job of playing the dutiful sidekick, and pretty much everything he says in this movie is a sidekick cliché. Willem Dafoe is largely wasted here, without a whole lot to do, although his character does go out with a bang.
Director Yimou Zhang does a nice job with the visuals but struggles with the intensity later in the movie. The film gets off to a rousing start, and there’s a lot of energy early on, but once the creatures attack, the film goes down several notches because the attacking monsters do not look real. As such, the action sequences never rise above average.
Also, for a movie called THE GREAT WALL that has as its centerpiece the Great Wall of China, the wall itself hardly factors into the story at all. Oh, battles occur on either side of it and on top of it, but I didn’t really get a sense of the actual structure. There’s no sense of awe or vastness about it or even interesting historical tidbits. It’s just part of the CGI landscape, a place where the army fights the monsters. The audience is never invited to go in for a closer look at the Great Wall. It’s a missed opportunity to make this film something memorable.
THE GREAT WALL is not a bad adventure movie at all, and with an OK script and Matt Damon in the cast, it’s actually better than it should be, as Damon and his fellow actors rise above the lackluster monster effects.
At the end of the day, it’s a decent adventure fantasy.
It’s just not— great.
Books by Michael Arruda:
TIME FRAME, science fiction novel by Michael Arruda.
IN THE SPOOKLIGHT, movie review collection by Michael Arruda.
FOR THE LOVE OF HORROR, short story collection by Michael Arruda.