The Great Wall: For the eyes, not the heart

The Great Wall has visuals so magnificent, war sequences so painstakingly choreographed that you’re almost willing to forgive it its half-hearted attempt at a story. There is just so much to take in, in each shot: Hundreds of people in colourful combat attire (The men in red are archers. The women in blue are specialists at aerial combat, and so on), inventive war equipment, onrushing alien monsters with fangs baring, expansive shots of the Great Wall… This grandiosity, of course, isn’t new to director Zhang Yimou, whose extravagant Chinese films are regular submissions at the Academy Awards. The Great Wall begins with war, and ends with it.

The Great Wall
Genre: Action-adventure
Director: Zhang Yimou
Cast: Matt Damon, Jing Tian, Pedro Pascal, Willem Dafoe
Storyline: Ancient China has to negotiate with an alien threat

In a sense, it’s a lot like the Game of Thrones episode, Battle of the Bastards. A long-awaited conflict between good and bad comes to fruition. Much like Ramsay Bolton in Game of Thrones, the bad here are monsters, but more literally conceived. The creature is what you’d get if you mixed Ridley Scott’s Alien with James Cameron’s Thanator, and there are hundreds and thousands of it swarming. The carnivorous creatures that gorge upon the living and the dead are said to pose a danger to the delicate balance of the planet, as they proliferate without control. Sounds familiar?

Meanwhile, there are more Game of Thrones associations in the form of the film’s composer, Ramin Djawadi, and the main supporting actor, Pero (Pedro Pascal, who GoT fans may know as Oberyn Martell). The war scenes are spectacular, and I cannot emphasise this enough, but where it matters—the story department—the film comes up woefully short. It’s the oft-told white-man-saves-the-day story, a la Dances with Wolves.

William (Matt Damon), captured by a military group called the Nameless Order, somehow shifts allegiance. It’s not just us; his friend, Pero, doesn’t get the sudden transformation either. There’s little emotional resonance, little to suggest this sudden change of heart. Talking of stale ideas, even the all-important plan of attacking the monster queen isn’t novel, and was most recently employed in the horrible Independence Day: Resurgence. As inspirations go, you couldn’t do worse.

Devoid of novelty and character depth, The Great Wall is reduced to two popcorn-munching hours of enterprising war sequences and well-done VFX, with a rare likeable bit thrown in here and there. I enjoyed that the female commander (Jing Tian) is crucial at the end, perhaps even more so than William himself. I enjoyed that any romantic involvement between them is only simply flirted at, but never overtly acknowledged. Alas, it would have been subtle and more effective in a more emotionally impactful film. The Great Wall ultimately is just like the wall itself: glorious, expansive, but at its core, cold stone.

This review was written for The New Indian Express. All copyrights belong to the organisation. Do link to this page if you’d like to share this review.

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