Photo courtesy of Universal PicturesIn “The Great Wall,” Matt Damon is a Spanish foreigner captured by a border patrol force trying to combat green monsters called Tao Tei. Sound ridiculous? It is.
"The Great Wall" And The Line Of Ridiculousness
I have long promoted a concept I made up, a concept called the “line of ridiculousness” — a threshold that must be surpassed in order for a silly, plot-hole-ridden film to go from stupid to just plain fun. This is why I was not a fan of any of the individual Marvel movies, like “Thor” or “Captain America” but enjoyed “The Avengers,” which took the ridiculousness of the individual superhero films to a whole new level, and was so over the top that I was able to forgive its faults. Unfortunately, “The Great Wall” falls short of the line of ridiculousness, and while it has its entertaining moments, they are too small and infrequent to make up for the gaping plot holes, stilted dialogue and mediocre story.
“The Great Wall” takes place during the Chinese Song Dynasty (960-1279 CE), and focuses on William (Matt Damon) and Tovar (Pedro Pascal), two vaguely Spanish foreigners who come to China in search of gunpowder (Damon’s accent was rather indistinguishable — also, why is a Spanish person named William?) They are captured by a border protection force on the Great Wall of China, a force that has been preparing for an attack by green monsters (yes, literally green monsters) known as the Tao Tei.
From this point in the story forward, the plot holes abound; the first wave of Tao Tei are inexplicably — and rather conveniently — called off after nearly achieving victory over the Chinese, and the reason for this is never adequately explained. Random helpful features show up in “The Great Wall” later on in the story, such as removable bricks that allow for soldiers to slice through enemy monsters - but were not there for use earlier, and only showed up when the plot demanded them. Gunpowder, the sole reason Damon and Pascal traveled to China in the first place, does not show up until halfway through the film, even though it would have been useful earlier on to kill some Tao Tei. The Chinese wear bright, ridiculously colored outfits that probably make them easier to spot and eat. I’m no general, siege architect or battle strategist, but I imagine most viewers will spend more time wondering why the characters aren’t using common sense to defeat the monsters, rather than enjoying Matt Damon occasionally kill the monsters.
Addressing the elephant in the room – as an Asian American, I must admit seeing Matt Damon’s (admittedly devilishly attractive) face on the front of a film about the Great Wall of China annoyed me immensely, and I was prepared to be frustrated once more about a lead role in an Asian or otherwise ethnic film being filled by a white actor. The film was not nearly as problematic as I was expecting. Damon and Pascal are not white saviors — in fact, they come from less civilized cultures, seeking the superior Chinese technology of gunpowder so they can sell it. Damon and Jing Tian’s character, Commander Lin, assist each other, providing new techniques and innovations which, together, help move the plot along. In fact, the film attempts to paint a larger metaphor (albeit clunkily) about the price of Western greed, which the Tao Tei seemingly represent.
However, the dialogue is so stilted and the characters so flat that the metaphor feels forced and unnatural. “Emotional” moments where important characters die do not feel emotional; indeed, if I were Jing Tian, I would struggle finding tears for the deaths of characters we have very little exposure to, and cannot relate to easily. Even some of the laugh lines feel like sitcom punchlines, but without the laugh track to confirm that yes, you are supposed to laugh at this statement.
I enjoyed the character of Commander Lin; she was neither a love interest nor a sexual object but a commander and main character, equal in rank to the other protagonists, and received as much screen time as Damon. The unnamed “cowardly soldier” character who both saved and was saved by Damon was also interesting. Generally speaking, however, there was not much in the way of character development.
Visually, the film is interesting at times. The different battalions in their bright colors, fighting against the monsters in ways that can only be described as creative (and, perhaps, a bit impractical) can be entertaining at certain moments; however, the original opening sequence and the closing sequence feature a terribly rendered, not at all realistic Great Wall. I’m not normally one to complain about graphics, but it’s really quite bad.
In summary, if you have $10 to blow on a somewhat entertaining afternoon, go see it, but otherwise, wait for the Netflix release.