The Great Wall (2016) was heavily panned by critics (even Chinese ones) and was widely regarded as a flop at the box office. It is one of the first big budget collaborations between Chinese and American film studios, and was directed by Zhang Yimou and features Hollywood actors Matt Damon, Pedro Pascal, and Willem Dafoe.
Is this a film that exemplifies the worst eccentricities of both Hollywood and Chinese blockbusters, or did critics just not get it?
William (Matt Damon) and his cohorts are far from honorable. They’ve come to China to steal black powder to take back to Feudal Europe, but instead they’ve arrived in the middle of a supernatural war at the edge of China that threatens to take over the world. These extreme circumstances force them to put their past aside and become as honest and brave as the Chinese soldiers fighting the threat. In other words, the white guys are far from chivalrous and they’ve got far more to learn from the Chinese than they can teach them. In fact, the white people initially come across a hindrance to the Chinese more than heroes who have arrived to save the day.
No joke, I really liked this movie. Yimou was obviously influenced by Roland Emmerich’s blockbusters (The Day After Tomorrow, and Independence Day) and successfully created a dumb and visually breathtaking Chinese equivalent. If you’re looking for mindless entertainment to kill a couple hours, then The Great Wall is hard to beat. Great pacing, gorgeous effects, creature design, choreography, cinematography, and some killer action scenes make for a surprisingly enjoyable cinematic experience.
I sat down expecting another enactment of white-man-saves-the-day, but instead I was surprised by a very Chinese-centric film. The Chinese characters in this film are more than capable of handling this situation on their own. They don’t need Matt Damon. They have kick ass technology, scientists who are more than up to snuff, and a large badass army that can more than handle its own against the supernatural horde called the Tao Tei (which heavily reminded me of the bugs from Starship Troopers).
That being said, it’s hard to overlook the structural flaws of this film. The plot is pure nonsense, and the script is atrociously bad. Outside of Matt Damon’s William, the characters are poorly developed. I would actually suggest watching this film with the subtitles off, because 90% of the time when a character speaks in Chinese the line is translated by another character. This often creates a unintentionally comical repetition to the characters dialogue.
In addition, there are several scenes inserted into the film purely to show off Yimou’s stylistic chops. There’s no real reason to have a 10 minute funeral in this film other than the fact Yimou wanted to have a massive stylistic scene involving paper lanterns. Yimou also sets the final scene of the film in a ridiculously large stained glass tower, which seems a bit much. While I personally enjoyed these random visual insertions, I could see them annoying someone expecting a more grounded film.
There’s a lot of potential for intriguing dialogue and characters, but its just not acted upon. Paraphrasing fellow reviewer Chris Haller, “Films like this are always painful to watch because you can just see the potential oozing out of them.” Max Brooks was given story credit on this film which tells me that while he’s a very talented novelist (World War Z), he will put his name on any movie for a check (World War Z). Keep buying his books, but don’t expect much plot from blockbusters sharing his name.
The Video (5/5)
The visual effects in this film are top notch. That’s hardly surprising considering the practical effects and artistic designs were from WETA, and the CGI was made at Lucasarts . The rainbow colored Chinese Army, ridiculously massive siege weaponry, equally ridiculous stained glass tower, and the neon green Tao Tei creatures are incredibly fun to watch on screen and you can tell the designers had a lot of fun creating this legendary world. The Great Wall in the film bears far more in common with the Wall in Game of Thrones than the real Great Wall in China. I’m very fond of the bright and fluorescent Medieval China in this film. The epic scale cinematography is crisp and easy to follow and the battle scenes are intriguing and keep your attention where the script and characters fail.
In some ways I regret purchasing the standard blu-ray version of this film because I think this would be a great reference title for 4K UHD TVs. HDR would make the wide color palette used in this film really shine.
The Audio (4/5)
As would be expected from a film with a $150 million budget, the audio tracks are competent and fit well next to the gorgeous visual effects. Nothing was overly memorable in the soundtrack, but nothing stood out as bad either. I don’t have the equipment available to review the Dolby ATMOS track, but I’m glad to see it hasn’t been excluded from the standard Blu-ray release.
Special Features/Packaging (2.75/5)
There’s not much noteworthy about the packaging, it’s a cookie cutter combo package with no art on the backside of the inserts. I also wish the cover art did more to show the gorgeous CGI work and costumes that went into this film instead of just focusing on Matt Damon. If nothing else, it has a lot of extras (but sadly no commentary).
- Deleted and Extended Scenes
- MATT DAMON in China
- Working with Director ZHANG YIMOU
- The Great Wall Visual Effects
- Man vs. Monster
- Weapons of War
- Designing a Spectacular World
Technical Specs (click for technical FAQs)
Region Coding: 1/A
Codec: Mpeg-4 AVC
Aspect Ratio: 2:40 : 1
Audio5Dolby ATMOS (English), Dolby Digital 5.1 (English, French, Spanish), DVS Dolby Digital 2.0 (English)
English SDH, Spanish, French
Runtime: 1 hour 43 minutes
Overall (3.75/5) – Not your Average Last Samurai.