The Great Wall full movie review - An A for effort
First of all, I'd like to praise the marketing for this film. I had no idea what this movie would be about. Thanks to a brilliant trailer campaign, I was expecting a great epic and quite possibly, a monster movie.
Not revealing the monsters was brilliant! Trailers should get us excited to see more, not show us every story beat of the film (I'm looking at you Batman v Superman). After Matt Damon's Oscar nominated performance in The Martian, I got a bit excited for The Great Wall. Sadly, The Great Wall turned out to be a mixed bag of disappointment and untapped potential
William and Tovar, portrayed by Matt Damon and Pedro Pascal respectively, are two mercenaries searching for "Black Powder" to sell back west. They quite literally stumble on the Great Wall and get involved in a war China is waging against... monsters (quite possibly aliens). And thus begins a great adventure in which Matt Damon can shine as the great hero, China didn't know it needed.
First things first. The Great Wall is a beautiful looking movie. The shots they managed to put on screen are genuinely gorgeous. Yimou Zhang knows how to compose and frame a shot and especially the action sequences look fantastic. It's a true breath of fresh air to watch comprehensible action that doesn't rely on shaky cam to be convincing. Adding to the great shot composure and framing, is an excellent production design. Yimou Zhang chose vibrant colors for the armors which not only set apart the different kind of warriors within this army, but also added a lot of much needed but unexpected color to the film. It's very clear that in these aspects, The Great Wall shows tremendous potential and effort. John Myhre and his team of production designers should be applauded.
Where this epic fumbles the ball, is in almost all other departments. One of the most glaring issues I have with The Great Wall, is that I simply was not invested in the story or characters. The opening sequences does a terrible job of introducing the protagonists. The film throws us right into a chase sequence that eventually amounts to nothing worth while. The baddies our heroes are running away from, aren't the main villains of the film... They reappear in the film, once. During this opening sequence we are treated to a terrible first encounter with one of the Toa Pei monsters they'll end up fighting on The Great Wall. With about 10 different shots, angles and camera movements, jammed together within a second, you'll end up having no idea what just happened. Luckily, the action scenes improve tremendously throughout the film. The editing in general does not however.
The biggest problems holding the film back are the editing and the script. The movie feels annoyingly choppy. I really got the sense that a lot of scenes were shortened or cut out which is disastrous for the pacing. At one point, one of the characters of the Chinese army dies. By that point, the film has done a terrible job of fleshing out this character so you're just sitting there feeling numb. The scene itself is handled poorly as well. The death and subsequent funeral seemingly take place in the course of one freaking minute. It felt like an entire sequence was cut out and the death and funeral scenes were glued together. It felt sloppy and very poorly edited.
The script is probably the biggest issue I have with the film. The writers tried to implement an ark for Matt Damon's character that on paper could really work. However, because of the terrible introduction of our hero, we don't get a clear picture of who this William fellow is at the start of the film. Therefor, any form of an ark injected in the film doesn't work because we have no idea how the protagonist specifically evolved. Throughout the film, some aspects of William's character are revealed. But choosing sloppy executed exposition scenes will certainly not enhance the storytelling.
The Great Wall can be classified as a monster movie. One of the most crucial aspects of a monster movie, are the monsters. The designs for the Toa Pei army are pretty cool. It's cool to see an intelligence driving these monsters forward. With different classes within this possible alien species, the Toa Pei army feels like exactly that: an army. The Toa Pei show a great deal of strategy and have a very creative way of communicating with each other. It's a bit of shame that the filmmakers chose to put all their cards on the table in the first battle scene of the film. Twenty minutes into the film you've seen everything there is to see as far as creature designs go. A gripe I have with the creatures is that they are not very frightening. Creative and cool, sure. But not particularly scary. I would've loved to see some more small scale variation among the creatures. Disappointingly, the backstory on the Toa Pei army is pretty lackluster.
The CGI in The Great Wall is inconsistent at best. The computer effects look great at times. But they look average or sub par more often than not. The film could've benefited from some practical creature effects as well. It's a shame we see none on screen. But because the movie heavily relies on CGI, the mediocrity of the effects is all the more glaring.
The Great Wall shows great potential. There's a lot of effort put into the cinematography, production design and action scenes. Unfortenately, the film suffers from sub par editing, sloppy screen writing and inconsistent computer effects. The final result is a slightly above average monster epic that never makes good on any of its potential.