Hordes of color-coordinated warriors amass together across the expanse of China’s iconic fortress in “The Great Wall,” the new monster movie epic set during the Song Dynasty in the Middle Ages, from the renowned auteur Zhang Yimou.
They comprise the Nameless Order, a secretive legion engaged in a fierce and epic battle with aliens called the Taotie, marauding lizard-like beasts that return every 60 years in a concentrated effort to scale the wall, invade China and, it can be assumed, the rest of the known world.
It’s a spectacle, to be sure, the largest-ever China-U.S. co-production that plays like the cinematic version of a mass military parade, designed to showcase Chinese resolve and power directly for Western audiences. Seen in 3-D, it represents an impressive display of filmmaking might.
What the movie offers in scale it lacks in substance, and it is so much, so relentlessly, that the initial escapist thrills become increasingly deadened. No amount of swooping camerawork, no symphonies of martial drums, no eruptions of slow-motion gore or images filled with sprawling jingoistic splendor, can account for the fact that the characters and the narrative they inhabit remain perilously superficial.
Co-opting the classic Westerner-in-the-Far-East trope, the picture stars Matt Damon as a European mercenary named William searching for black powder on the Silk Road, who happens upon the Great Wall along with his companion Tovar (Pedro Pascal), after being attacked by and slaying one of the mysterious monsters.
Once inside, distrust on the part of leaders such as Commander Lin (Jing Tian) grudgingly transforms into respect and admiration as William, an expert archer, joins the struggle against the relentless demons.
The movie has attracted considerable criticism for centering the story on a European, in this case one played by a major Hollywood star that’s obviously here to make sure the U.S. audiences pay attention. It’s problematic and unnecessary, to say the least, even though Damon gives a dependable action hero performance, albeit one with a strange accent that fluctuates between a weird gruff tone, a quasi-continental European mishmash and his usual self.
That his character exists at all speaks to the problem at the center of the whole production: the larger calculations behind-the-scenes, the fact that “The Great Wall” has an agenda behind simply entertaining its audience and imparting a message about international cooperation. It’s nothing less than a picture about the grandeur of China and its people, an impossibly lofty goal for any single movie, let alone one that’s essentially one giant action scene.