1700 years to build. 5500 miles long. What were they trying to keep out?
Set one thousand years in the past, a group of westerners are travelling toward China to trade for fabled black powder. Many of their number have died along the road and soon only William [Damon] and Pero [Pascal] remain. In the middle of the night, the group are set upon by an unseen animal but manage to defeat it. Without having time to process what they fought, the two soldiers continue their trek and find themselves facing a heavily fortified wall. With bandits on their heels, they take their chances with the custodians of the wall. Suspicious of these outsiders, the General of the Nameless Order distrusts them but as they are carrying a limb from the beast that attacked them, they keep them for interrogation. Using Commander Lin [Jing] as a translator, the Order explain that the arm belongs to a race of ravenous monsters that descend from a jade mountain every sixty years. No sooner has this been explained, the wall is attacked and the Europeans get their first real taste of this monstrous force.
This film falls flat on its face thanks to underperformance in two simple areas, plot and reach. The story itself is incredibly simplistic and linear, never stepping outside formulaic trappings. After the introduction, the supporting characters repel three separate attacks (one of which takes place away from the wall), while the leads dither about whether they should stay and fight or see through their mission to obtain black powder by any means necessary. The trouble is there are so many stupid blockbuster plot-holes; events happen because they move the action along rather than being logically dictated (see the highlighted scene below). While I won’t slate the vanilla dialogue – only because this film offers a bi-lingual feel rather than every character inexplicably speaking one language – there is far too much focus on the foreigner saving the day. What’s odd is that the film doesn’t start this way. From the beginning we totally understand that to have made it this far alive, William and Pero must be competent and capable fighters. What’s more, their service on the wall is decent but this is largely due to the fact they happen to have a magnet; meaning we have a pair of talented individuals who are utilised as useful allies/tools. But as the film progresses, this quickly breaks down and the white saviour narrative steps up as victory could not be assured if it weren’t for the bravery, ingenuity and skill of the outsider. I really hope I shouldn’t have to explain why that undermines literally every other character, so I’ll just sidestep it and address the issue of reach. This is much easier to cover as it’s a complaint about something most films tend to unnecessarily overindulge in: spectacle. The first third of The Great Wall succeeds in being pretty fun, big glossy fantasy schlock but the potential for bombastic outrageousness is never really explored. Don’t get me wrong, there’s tonnes of absurd developments brought in solely for being cool but neither the story nor the visuals go so over-the-top to give us something radical and hitherto unseen. One need only compare the brassy, ballsy scale of something like Starship Troopers to realise how ultimately safe, tame, uninspired and CGI-reliant this action release is.
On the acting side of things, the characters themselves are incredibly two dimensional and little more than worn out clichés. I can’t even think of a single character that didn’t walk through the most predictable of arcs: we have the conflicted hero, the loveable rogue, the noble general, the duty-bound commander, the treacherous prisoner/guest, the wise advisor, the timid novice who yearns to prove himself, etc. Each one has a set narrative and there are ultimately no surprises with any of them. And yet none of the roles are particularly badly acted; everyone performs admirably, so I can’t even slate it for that. I will, however, state that I have no idea where William is supposed to be from; I imagine this was done intentionally to ensure scrutiny of a specific accent could be avoided by saying he’s just generic northern European. But it’s distracting as hell. Is he Irish, English, Norwegian?
While the reach of the film may not satisfy, what is present is incredibly impressive. In what seems a perfect marriage, the combination of Zhang’s flair for style, precision and detail is partnered with the quality and intricacy of WETA Workshop’s output. And before anyone starts on about the anachronisms and inaccuracies in the costumes or the sets, everything about this film is set in fantastical legend; the film even goes out of its way to explain so in the opening titles. And with such a broad and beautiful achievement, the production design really does carry the entire film; that is, when the acceptable CGI isn’t pissing over itself. To clarify, it’s not that the digital imagery is bad or that the designs for the creatures aren’t interesting, it’s the choice of angles and sprawling, charging monsters that we have seen countless times before. On top of all that, Ramin Djawadi has done his usual 50/50 thing by being brought on to a project and produced a serviceable but forgettable score; which would arguably be fine, if he weren’t capable of producing some truly spectacular musical accompaniment.
Rather than being an Asian film with a few Western actors, The Great Wall is an American film with a Chinese director and supporting cast and absolutely everything about the narrative feels that way. I understand the appeal of hybridising two of the biggest cinematic markets to produce material that would appeal across the board but nothing here particularly feels akin to the greatest achievements of either. But considering the wealth of talent on display, this is a shocking disappointment; not that I’m particularly surprised.
17th February 2017
The Scene To Look Out For:
I will openly confess, I am not exactly familiar with the history of magnets in China (sorry to let you down) but it’s quite evident that they didn’t have them in abundance at the time. What bugs me, however, is that midway through the film we learn that not only does the magnetised rock that William carries cause a neutralising effect – coincidence enough on its own – it was even recorded in an ancient battle record. That’s right, an adviser from the Emperor arrives with a document which describes a small magnet being the key to victory during the last attack. So.. where’s that magnet now? If you know this is something that can be of use, why do you need Damon bringing one to trigger events? They’ve had sixty years to prepare, did no one think to get another magnet?
Ignoring the central European characters for the moment, I rather enjoyed Tian Jing’s role as Commander Lin Mae. Raised in the military, loyal to the cause, fighting on the frontline and decently acted, she’s an all-round hero and if I’m honest, I would have enjoyed an alternative version of this film wherein she was the lead character.
“They need more than us.. these people are doomed”
In A Few Words:
“A wonderful example of how two major filmic nations can come together to produce an exceptional amount of quality material and an equal amount of muddled dreck”