Film Review: “The Great Wall”

Starring: Matt Damon, Tian Jing and Willem Dafoe
Directed By: Yimou Zhang
Rated: PG-13
Running Time: 103 minutes
Universal Pictures

Our Score: 2 out of 5 Stars

12th century China looks weird. And it’s not just because of Matt Damon’s scraggly face sticking out like a sore thumb. There’s been a lot of vocal concerns by the mainstream media that “The Great Wall” is whitewashing history, but don’t worry. The movie isn’t historical in any way shape or form. But it does manage to explain why Damon’s character is there. He’s a European merchant in search of gunpowder. He talks about how gunpowder is a rumor, fantasized about by Western powers. If someone were to find it, take it, and bring it back, they would receive untold fortunes.

That’s logical. In fact it’s the only logical thing in this illogical movie. Sure Damon has a bland accent that disappears half the time and it’s not quite clear what nationality his character is, but it’s not the explosive controversy that’s being portrayed on “Good Morning America” right now. This movie is about as historically accurate as Mel Brook’s “History of the World, Part I.” It solidifies that fact when we’re introduced to the CGI asteroid demon creatures that have been spent centuries attempting to invade China.

That’s not a glaring typo or a misplaced sentence fragment from another review. There are green monsters that come from a lemon lime radiating space rock populating the screen. These creatures are of a hive mind, following orders from an ominous queen. These green monsters apparently want to invade ancient China because…well…the movie never answers that. It’s frustrating because the writers couldn’t even bother to steal a page from the “Starship Troopers” playbook.

The queen alien, who’s very unimpressive compared to her underlings, isn’t just some animalistic creature without a shred of intellect. There’s a drive behind her as she meticulously plans out traps, devises battle plans, and evolves her army’s military tactics over decades. “The Great Wall” explain too much without ever explaining any of the basic groundwork. This should be stupid fun time at the movies, but it’s interjections of seemingly random alien rationale and ramshackle attempts at historical precedent are befuddling.

“The Great Wall” can never make up its mind on if it wants to be a serious attempt at a summer blockbuster or fantasy alternative history. It can’t be both and fails at being either one. I didn’t expect much walking in. I truly didn’t. I expected a 2017-style “Gods of Egypt” tax write off for Universal, but that’s not what I got. Even while my brain was on cruise control I managed to pick up on the poor plot pacing and subpar storytelling. That’s not a good thing.

The saving grace in “The Great Wall” is its half-hearted attempt at likable characters. It helps that Damon most likely knew they were filming hot garbage and played into its schlock. But I lacked beer and friends to appreciate the pricey travesty I was witnessing on screen. There’s no doubt that it’s visually intense and the set designs are meticulously detailed and gorgeous, but this is a rough movie to like or even recommend.