‘The Great Wall’ Review – An Exciting but Empty Spectacle

Drew Dietsch
of 5
Review Essentials
  • Expertly directed action.
  • Gorgeous production.
  • Briskly paced.
  • Horribly thin characters.
  • Unearned emotional beats.
  • Eye candy, not brain candy.

The Great Wall of China was built to protect the land from invading hordes. However, this story features enemies of a supernatural kind. Swords-for-hire William (Matt Damon) and Tovar (Pedro Pascal) stumble upon an ancient order, led by the commanding General Lin (Jing Tian), that uses the wall to fend off an ancient army of beasts known as the Tao Tei. It’s up to William to find out if he has found something worth fighting for, and if he can help defeat this seemingly undefeatable force.

A Treat for Your Eyes, Not Your Brain

It’s hard not to like The Great Wall. There’s so much in it that works. Legendary director Zhang Yimou deftly constructs a colorful and dynamic world that is a joy to behold. The costumes, sets, and props are all delightfully fantastical and keep your eyes glued to the screen. The direction is beautiful and effective, especially when it comes to the action. Seriously, the battles in this movie are some of the most engaging fantasy fight sequences I’ve seen in a while. In a marketplace crowded with bombastic cartoon action, The Great Wall stands out as a gold standard.

And there are some great progressive elements in the film. Tian’s character is a strong leader and never treated as a romantic interest. She’s an equal warrior to any of the male characters. She’s definitely the best character in the film and the message of the movie — we all need to work together to fight a common problem — is plenty encouraging.

The Great Wall review general lin jing tian
General Lin (Jing Tian) looking badass.

But does all of that have quite as much value when the characters populating the story are so weak? It’s amazing how one-dimensional every single person is. Damon’s character has one note and he plays it pretty flat. It doesn’t help that Damon sounds like he’s chewing on a handful of marbles. Pascal lucks out by being the comic relief, so he gets to throw his charm and one-liners around any chance he gets. Even Willem Dafoe doesn’t get a heck of a lot to work with as the army’s long-time prisoner. Everyone just makes the grade but barely.

Honestly, the film reminded a lot of Pacific Rim: a knowingly cartoonish, large-scale spectacle that’s more interested in its toys than the people in the film. That’s fun in a very action figure sort of way. The monsters have silly but entertaining designs, and although they sometimes fall victim to bad CGI, they provide a surprising amount of thrilling violence and well-constructed set pieces. The way the monsters’ work is also delivered in very simple, visual ways that make sense. Oh, they’re also probably aliens. So that’s a hoot.

Is The Great Wall Good?

the great wall review generals army
The commanders of the Nameless Order. Gotta love that armor!

The Great Wall has you covered if all you want is big screen blockbuster eye candy. It’s gorgeous to behold and expertly composed on almost every technical level. The movie moves along nicely — the first big attack happens almost immediately — and will keep you enthralled as far as base cinematic pleasures are concerned. However, the characters at the core of this story are too unformed to stand out as real people. They’re cartoon characters and there’s nothing intrinsically wrong with that, but it makes the emotional heart of the story flatline.

The Great Wall is the equivalent of a well-made toy movie. It’s a feast for the imagination, but your heart and brain will check out after a while. Still, if most giant spectacle movies were this fun, it’d probably be a better cinematic world.

‘The Great Wall’ is released in the U.S. and the UK on February 17.

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