The Great Wall (2017)3:40 PM
1700 years to build. 5500 miles long. What were they trying to keep out?
The Great Wall is directed by Yimou Zhang (House of Flying Daggers, The Flowers of War) and stars Matt Damon (The Martian, Jason Bourne), Tian Jing (Special ID, Police Story: Lockdown) and Willem Dafoe (Spider-Man, John Wick). "European mercenaries searching for black powder become embroiled in the defense of the Great Wall of China against a horde of monstrous creatures". The Great Wall is actually a pretty important film - it is a big step forward for the film industry as this was produced by a Chinese production company and is being distributed by a major US company - Universal. It may be a big deal in terms of its release, but is it a big deal in general?
I had rock bottom expectations for The Great Wall - I can usually count on Matt Damon but for some reason, I just wasn't feeling this film from the trailers - it looked like the typical early-year throwaway release that studios don't think will make money in the summer - e.g. Jupiter Ascending, The 5th Wave etc. Honestly the film is probably of the calibre of those types of films but there is quite a lot to like in it and I think for a time where audiences will probably be missing blockbusters - it is a good filler and an excuse to go to the cinema - it's ok and not terrible. I also think this is an important film to see for any film fans or cinephiles - I think The Great Wall marks the beginning of major Chinese production companies releasing big, mainstream movies. I also have quite a bit of respect for the film which I'll get onto later but it is passable.
The acting in the film is actually where one of my biggest issues but also biggest praises comes from. So, to Western audiences, this film has been marketed as a Matt Damon driven blockbuster - similarly to how Tom Cruise drives Mission: Impossible or how Jennifer Lawrence drives The Hunger Games. I think audiences will be underwhelmed to find out Damon is merely part of the ensemble as his character does not have much interesting stuff to do at all. I actually found Damon pretty wooden and dull in this film - I'm usually a Damon fan but he's coming off of this and Jason Bourne now, it's not looking good. I don't actually know what Damon could have done better as he didn't have many interesting lines or big, solo action moments - this was an ensemble film which did surprise me. Damon was kind of used as a gateway for Western audiences into a Chinese film - everything in this film is what I imagine is in all of the big, monster blockbusters that Chinese audiences enjoy. Tian Jing is also ok but I feel like the film couldn't decide whether the protagonist was Jing or Damon - I bet Jing was marketed as the lead in Asian countries. The Great Wall just feels a little crowded in terms of characters - I actually do not remember any of their names and there was no performance that blew me away. So the performances are pretty forgettable and not special but the casting and characters are also where my praises lie. The Great Wall is the perfect example of what any release should be doing - there is no white-washing, the film allows for characters of the appropriate ethnicity to tell a story about their culture. Yes, Matt Damon is in the film but I think there are many other Asian characters which cancels him out and this is the first step - eventually some Asian actors could become household names thanks to The Great Wall kicking this (hopefully) trend off.
The visuals in The Great Wall are actually very very good and if the rest of the film was this good, it would be fantastic. There is one scene that comes to mind that involves lanterns and I actually thought it was one of the most beautiful moments I had seen in film for a long time - the score captured the scene perfectly and it was just very visually pleasing to the eyes. Stunning. The cinematography was also very strong overall - when Damon's character is asked to jump from The Wall and we see over the edge, I actually felt quite nervous in my seat as the film did a really good job of capturing the height - for anyone afraid of heights, this film may not be for you. The landscape also looked really beautiful and mesmerising - I would recommend seeing this film simply just to see it - most scenes look fantastic. The CGI in the film is also pretty solid - even though all of the creatures kind of look the same so once you've seen them once, you kind of get bored of them, they still look good and their interactions with the characters was impressive. 'The Queen' kind of resembled the main alien in Independence Day: Resurgence though. If you get the chance to, I'd recommend seeing The Great Wall in 3D as this film really does utilise it - the blades, the arrows, the creatures really do come right at you and it made me flinch and jump numerous times throughout the film.
Now, here's something I rarely come out of a film commenting on and giving praise to - the production design. It dawned on me more and more as the film went on just how wonderful the sets were - the whole thing just felt very real. This didn't feel like a big CGI spectacular, it felt like a real world with CGI monsters. The capital city was a wonderful set but my favourite was probably the tower in which Jing and Damon fire the arrows from at end of the film - it was so colourful and the colours radiated from the windows - it was simply stunning. I also think the costume design deserves praise. I'm no expert on production or set design but I would absolutely consider this for an awards nomination when it comes to the 2017/2018 ceremonies.
I've left what lets the film down till last - the story. There really isn't much to the story at all other than the fact that these creatures are repeatedly attacking the wall and eat everything and anything they touch. The film is just a series of talking and action sequences - the characters will be having a discussion and then all of a sudden a group of warriors will run towards the wall saying that the creatures are coming - there's no real explanation or no build up, they just keep coming and therefore being fought. The intentions of these creatures is also not explained very well - something is mentioned but its just not clear enough to understand. Some of the dialogue is also pretty poor and incredible expositional - especially the lines of Jing towards the beginning of the film - I actually laughed a couple of times because some of her lines were so obvious and unneeded. The tagline for the film really promises something quite intriguing but this mystery is actually given away in the first action sequence and although the action sequences are consistently fun to watch, they're a little too consistent. The action never gets bigger and bigger, the stakes never get higher - it just feels like the same type of sequence over and over and it can easily be predicted that mankind is going to come out on top each time. There is also a subtle message towards the end where the characters briefly realise that even though they are from different cultures, they are still quite similar and can work together - I think this message was just tacked on at the end though as it wasn't a running theme throughout.
The Great Wall is mostly incredibly visually pleasing with stunning cinematography, solid CGI and beautiful production, costume and set design. However, all of that is kind of forgotten when we get a pretty one dimensional story, similar action sequences, no stakes, no big reveal and pretty mediocre performances. The Great Wall is pretty close to a dumb but fun film because I think the action, visuals and 3D are enough to warrant seeing this film if you're desperate for something to do. However, this isn't a remarkable blockbuster or one we'll be talking about (in terms of the film itself) by the end of the year - we will be talking about it in film history though as The Great Wall is a landmark for film just as the title is for China. If only it could have been done a little more justice.