“The Great Wall” is confused as to what it wants to be

Image result for the great wall movie“The Great Wall”

Mercenaries William (Matt Damon) and Tovar (Pedro Pascal) are out in the Chinese desert looking for black powder when they are attacked by a mysterious creature.  After chopping its arm off, they decide to take it with them for future research.  Soon enough, they reach a giant wall and are captured by the military force inside, called “The Nameless Order” led by General Shao (Hanyu Zhang) and Strategist Wang (Andy Lau).  There, William and Tovar learn about the Wall and the history of the attacks by those mysterious creatures (the Taoties) and fall into the good graces of Commander Lin.  The two also meet long-lost mercenary Sir Ballard (Willem Defoe), who has been forced to assimilate to life inside the Wall with The Order since trying to obtain the black powder twenty-five years earlier.

The most important part of a movie (per yours’ truly) is the opening scene.  In a historical or fantasy movie, the opening crawl text and/or opening sequence paves the way for the direction of the story.  Great opening texts have allowed audiences to enjoy such great movies as Inglorious Basterds and most of the Star Wars saga.  The Great Wall’s opening moments backfire spectacularly.  The opening frames set up the titular wall as The Great Wall of China, immediately grounding the movie in the real world.  There’s a satellite shot showing China from space with the Wall barely visible before zooming in with four or five short paragraphs telling the viewer the history and geography of The Great Wall.  So when the first battle sequence is of the two non-Chinese male leads fighting off a Chinese mythical creature, the viewer is immediately confused.  Is this supposed to be a real, historical feature or some sort of fantasy?

What keeps the movie afloat is the look of The Great Wall.  Simply put, it is gorgeous.  The attention to detail on the costumes, especially of the coats of armor on The Order, is tremendous.  The Wall itself is a near perfect melding of practical and computer effects.  There is only one visual that doesn’t work: the flying arrows looked terrible in 2D, I can’t imagine how terrible they look in 3D.  The visuals being impressive shouldn’t be a surprise: Zhang Yimou has made such visual experiences as Hero and House of Flying Daggers.

Just because the visuals look stunning doesn’t mean they all work.  The armor I mentioned before looks absurd in loud, vibrant colors when you add the context of the movie to it.  As for Damon, he is way less “white savior” and much more “white nuisance”.  The three non-Chinese characters only passively interfere until the finale.  There’s a sequence about halfway through where we see two of the white characters try to escape the Wall with some of the black powder that only confirms the idea that these three are completely out of their element.  Matt Damon even adds a bad accent to the proceedings.

The Great Wall plays like a highlight reel from a longer, grander, better movie.  The movie is confused as to what it wants to be.  It opens like a traditional epic picture but has too many elements of fantasy to successfully go that direction, but the movie isn’t bad enough to be interesting to those who look for campy films.  I don’t know what The Great Wall was; does anyone?

1 out of 5