It’s an amazing spectacle of a film, visually pleasing but lacking good story, characters, and acting. It is worth the price of 3D just for the visuals.
Is It Worth $10? No
Is it Worth $15 for 3D? Yes
Let's be clear from the start. "The Great Wall" is a spectacle film. It should not nor does it aspire to place itself into any sort of screenplay- or acting-based awards categories. Rather, it rather lets its driving force be solely in cinematography. For this reason, the film is better enjoyed in 3D, where the 3D -- done very well -- helps highlight the scale, the beauty, and the spectacle. The infamous Sun Tzu classic "The Art of War," though not mentioned in the film, seems to have given the filmmakers some level of inspiration as they are able to turn grotesque and frantic fighting into elegant and masterful performance art, accented by soft yet vibrant colors and Busby Berkeley-level synchronization.
The story follows medieval soldier of fortune William (Matt Damon) and his pal Tovar (Pedro Pascal) as they travel deep into the East in search of the fabled black powder. Their comrades are killed by some monster and once they are captured by the Chinese and brought to a section of the Great Wall fortress, William uses a severed appendage of the monster as a bargaining chip. Commander Lin (Tian Jing) is impressed and the Westerners are kept alive, conveniently, for a massive attack by hive-minded creatures of legend called the Tao Tei that can only be killed by shooting/stabbing them in the eye. As William grows fond of his captors, he learns the values of trust and fighting for a cause.
As mentioned, the story is not the strength here. The script seems to reach in many different directions, simultaneously exhibiting traits of a fantasy-epic, a historical fable, and an East meets West cross-cultural allegory (appropriate given this is the first in a bigger China/Hollywood deal that may see more collaborations between the two entities). It takes itself seriously, which makes the snippy commentary of the two Westerners seem even more out of place. That said, it is refreshingly easy to follow. It doesn't allow lore and complicated character arcs get in the way of the visuals, and, for a film like this, this is a good thing.
The cast, already controversial due to the casting of Matt Damon, delivers very rigid performances that do nothing to bolster the overall enjoyment of the film. Damon and Pascal deliver some enjoyable lines, but Damon's light-hearted camaraderie with his friend stands in stark contrast to his straight-faced and wooden interactions with the Chinese actors. Likewise, Tian Jing has a strong presence when amongst her troops but seems weak when interacting with Damon. The lack of chemistry is almost tangible, which, again, does not bode well for the China/Hollywood deal. Willem Dafoe is perhaps the biggest wasted element, doing nothing but serving as a plot device to explain how the Chinese warriors know English.
But when the cameras stop focusing on the actors and draw out to view the beautiful Chinese country-side, and the enormous scope of the Great Wall, and the rolling Earth that is the hordes of monsters approaching, the audience is drawn into the film in another way. From the advanced mechanics of the wall to the regimented and unwavering synchronicity of the Chinese troops, one is reminded of the breathtaking opening ceremony of the 2008 Beijing Olympics, unsurprising as Yimou Zhang served as director of both. Bungee-jumping warriors spear creatures before slinging back to the safety of the Wall, archers blanket the area in precisely fired arrows, and foot-warriors come together as one massive unit mobilized against the Tao Tei, each adorned in different vibrant shades of red, purple, and blue. It truly is masterfully choreographed and exhilarating to watch, turning war into art. A finale set inside a stained-glass pagoda is gorgeous as it allows the beauty of the colored light to offset the horror of the situation.
Ultimately, "The Great Wall" works well as a spectacle, more for the eyes than the mind. The dull, yet simple script serves the movie well in not distracting from the visuals. 3D is brilliantly used to enhance the scope, and fluid camera-work keeps the film from lagging. While the acting is not consistent, it is not necessary for the overall enjoyment of the movie.
Josh Walbert is an entertainment guru with a passion for film and television. He lives south of Orlando, FL, with his girlfriend, and relatively extensive DVD/Blu-Ray collection.