Set during the Song Dynasty, The Great Wall is about two European mercenaries (Matt Damon and Pedro Pascal) who are searching for a substance called black powder. One night they are attacked by a monster, which they manage to kill. They then happen upon The Great Wall (as in, of China) where they are taken prisoner by soldiers of a military sect called the Nameless Order, which turns out the be a special division of the Imperial Army conceived for the sole purpose of repelling monsters called Tao Tei, who rise every 60 years. When Matt Damon (I can’t remember his character’s name and to be honestly it doesn’t matter, he’s there to be Matt Damon) shows them the severed hand of the beast, the commanding officers begin to think these Europeans may just be worth keeping around. This puts Matt and Pedro in a position where they may have access to the black powder they’ve been seeking; will they stick around and help the army fight the monsters and basically save the world, or will they steal the black powder?
Willem Dafoe is also in it, in a very broad performance as a mercenary who had ventured there in search of black powder twenty years earlier, but was also caught and imprisoned and had been serving as an English and Latin teacher (which I guess is why everyone can speak English).
The plot is so convoluted that I lost concentration just trying to write that recap. This film is all spectacle and no substance. It’s about an army fighting CGI monsters with bows and arrows and flame throwers and a magical magnetic rock (yes, you read that correctly).
If you’re wondering if the talk about this being another “white saviour” narrative is true, I’m here to tell you that it is. The Chinese army are clearly far more skilled and technologically capable than the European characters, and Commander Lin (Tian Jin) and her troops leave them in their dust. They’ve spent their entire lives training for the sole purpose of fighting these monsters, and they can fall into formation in a matter of seconds. Yet it would appear that the saving-of-the-world can only happen when Matt Damon arrives. Why???
Those looking for any meaningful insight into the history of the famous monument are also out of luck. The filmmakers don’t even try to make us believe in the story. The film opens with a prologue explaining that what we are about to watch is based on myth. This immediately puts audiences on the back foot: how am I meant to invest in this story when I am told right off the bat that it’s not true?
For a film with a pretty darn big budget, the CGI was so bad. The font used in the prologue looks like it came out of a 1990s TV fantasy series, and that’s pretty much the standard for the CGI throughout the rest of the film.
Matt Damon spoke in an accent that confused me, and which can only be described as “soft Irish”. The bromance between Matt Damon and Pedro Pascal was so forced it was almost painful. The two actors have no chemistry together and it almost felt like they were acting in different rooms instead of in the same scene together.
A couple of cool things about the film: a lot of the dialogue in this film is spoken in Mandarin (I saw it with English subtitles), which is awesome because I am all for more diversity on the big screen, and it really bothers me when non-English speaking characters inexplicably speak English to each other.
This film also appears to have a bit of a feminist skew! A lot of the most badass soldiers in this film are women, and they are treated as equals to their male counterparts. When Lin Mae is promoted to the rank of commander, no one questions it! No one undermines her, no questions her ability to do the job or insists on supervising her. Alas, we’ve already been told in the prologue that this never happened, but if we could in a world where this could conceivably happen, that would be great. The costumes were also cool, and the fight choreography was fab.
Watching this film is like watching a bunch of army fight sequences over and over again. Maybe if turn your brain off – and I mean turn it off, not put it on silent – you might enjoy the spectacle.
Image: Paramount Pictures