“The Great Wall” is a strange film. There’s a lot to enjoy: stunning visuals, acrobatic combat, impressive special effects, and an exciting story. There’s also a lot that gets dropped in service to the impression the film wants to give: any resemblance to historical accuracy, realistic physiology, or even a ghost of caring about making sense. If you want to turn your brain off and watch awesome battle sequences, “The Great Wall” will not let you down. If you like movies that respect your intelligence and don’t have massive plot holes, stay far, far away.
Our protagonist William (Matt Damon) and a small band of mercenaries are trying to find a source of gunpowder they can take home and sell to make themselves comically rich for the rest of their lives. Before long, William is down to one last confederate, Tovar (Pedro Pascal), and they’re captured by the warriors who man the Great Wall of China. Before General Shao (Hanyu Zhang) can decide what to do with them, the reason the Wall was built becomes apparent as a horde of green, lizard-ish monsters attack.
The rest of the film is snippets of something vaguely like character development scattered through astonishing battle sequences. If you know director Yimou Zhang’s work, you know how awesome it looks, and he is in solid form here. The warriors of the Nameless Order are color-coded by division, and use a variety of increasingly cool-looking weapons and methods to hold off the monsters. There’s an entire battalion of women warriors who bungee-jump down toward the creatures with long, flexible spears. There are huge, cog-driven machines to catapult flaming balls of death. It’s all very impressive.
Unfortunately, if you let yourself think too much, the film quickly becomes incomprehensible. For example, the attacking monsters have their eyes on their shoulders. This would be fine if they didn’t have enormous alligator-snouts full of shark teeth that block any hope of depth perception. Furthermore, the monsters’ eyes are their weak spots, even though they clearly do not have brains behind their eyes to be destroyed by arrows through the delicate eye sockets.
One place where the film succeeds is that Damon’s character isn’t a special White savior who helps to save the noble savages. His function is to serve as the audience’s proxy, giving other characters the opportunity to explain China’s amazing weaponry, discipline, and general awesomeness. At the same time, though, the film glorifies his exceptional skill, and makes it pretty clear that the Chinese don’t understand the importance of making your way on your own and becoming strong in isolation.
Internet personality Andrew Ti described “The Great Wall” as being “like two warring propaganda departments had to collaborate on a movie,” and that is surprisingly accurate. The film presents both individualism and collectivism as The Best Thing Ever, and fails to present anything that makes much in the way of sense. It’s fun and entertaining as long as you don’t think about it too much.