‘The Great Wall’ Cannot Defend Itself from Tired Blockbuster Tropes

Early on in Zhang Yimou’s The Great Wall, William (Matt Damon) and Commander Lin (Tian Jing) engage in an exchange of words. William, a mercenary who recently arrived at the Great Wall of China, describes, to Lin, his backstory—a life as a wandering warrior, fighting for whichever nation will compensate him. Lin is immediately taken aback by this, revealing that she has fought for the Nameless Order on the Wall for her entire life. In this revelatory moment, she glances away from William and softly mutters, “We are not the same.” This exchange epitomizes the internal morality of this extravaganza: loyalty—in particular to one’s own nation—is championed above all else. Lin deduces from William’s inability to remain loyal to a single nation that she cannot trust him to fight for her.

Zhang’s nationalistic spectacle begins when William and a fellow mercenary, Tovar (Pedro Pascal), are taken as prisoners by Lin, a member of the Nameless Order. Coincidentally, rumblings are heard in the far distance and before William and Tovar are locked away, a monstrous siege on the Great Wall begins. Prison sentences are quickly put on hold, and William and Tovar are taken to the top of the Wall to conveniently look on when the horde of dog-like, emerald-colored monsters, the Taotie, begin to storm the Wall. As it turns out, these alien-beasts arrived on Earth via a meteor that smashed into the planet two thousand years prior. The obedient soldiers of the Nameless Order put on an impressive show for the mercenaries, as they kill the oncoming monsters in every possible way imaginable. Inflamed cannonballs fly across the sky alongside groupings of deadly arrows, all on their way to kill as many monsters as possible. Of course, Williams and Tovar soon join the fight and help hold off the Taotie for the day—both are, obviously, very impressive fighters. They are recognized for their skill, and are asked to help fend off the horde. William and Tovar seem to disagree about what to do going forward—whether to help the Chinese or to leave by escaping. This predicament sets up the conflict for the remainder of the film, pinning loyalty to a greater cause against the benefits of a rugged individualism.



As a strictly visual spectacle, this film works well. Chinese auteur Zhang Yimou brings to his films a uniquely distinct visual style that is, frankly, impressive. Zhang made his style known throughout the early part of this century for directing films like Hero (2002) and House of Flying Daggers (2004), which feature colorful, painterly images that are a testament to Zhang’s directorial craft. The Great Wall represents Zhang’s foray into big, blockbuster filmmaking and for the most part, his style translated well. Zhang utilized his entire 150 million dollar budget, using hundreds of extras to create a truly epic film. Each army regiment is designated a different color, giving the film a certain vibrancy and fun. Smoke signals, drum-lines, and large-scale military formations stand as proof of Zhang’s visual sophistication. The most breathtaking of the film’s set pieces however, takes when William and Lin find themselves in a tower with walls mostly made up of polychromatic-stained glass, with strong pink and blue hues. Beams of sunshine stream through the glass and down upon the film’s heroes, creating a striking kaleidoscope effect.

Yet, as much as audiences will appreciate the film’s visual style, many other components of the film will detract from its aesthetic beauty. The aggressive use of CGI in this movie, while necessary, proved to be incredibly distracting. The Taotie, in particular, look totally unconvincing and, consequently, unthreatening. An antagonistic force, like the horde in The Great Wall, crushes any stakes that this film attempted to build up. The juxtaposition of Zhang’s thoughtfully crafted images, alongside a poorly-rendered CGI monster army, tainted the beauty of the film. In addition, the stale dialogue and its deliverance came off as manufactured and trite. Unfortunately, these issues spoil the film.

Unfortunately, while there is fun to be had with The Great Wall, it could not protect itself from the problems typically found in contemporary blockbuster films. The film tries to push a message of loyalty, arguing for trust and devotion. Ironically enough, the film’s uncompromising devotion to CGI effects and graphics hindered the film in the end, as Zhang’s distinct style, sadly enough, was compromised.

Featured Image By Universal Pictures