Sometime last fall I saw the first trailer for a new movie from Legendary and Universal Studios coming out called “The Great Wall”. The premise was simple: the Chinese build the Great Wall to defend against some kind of attacking Kaijū (怪獣) attacking from the north. What we know from history is wrong and has been kept secret all these years. Somehow Matt Damon is there. I’m interested. I love it when story tellers mix history with fantastical and plausible explanations. That’s Hollywood plausible, mind you.This is the same studio pair that is bringing us Godzilla, Kong, and Pacific Rim. I was imagining they could mix this into a prequel to one of those universes. But then the trailer tipped its hand and showed the monster. I was not a single strange beast, but a horde of swarming creatures. My interest waned.
Despite that lukewarm anticipation I went to go see it having done no additional research no read any reviews. What I got was a beautiful view of northwestern China with a good story and good characters. Matt Damon’s character makes some references to events in Europe so we know we are in the end of the 11th century. With him is a Spaniard played by Pedro Pascal. Both are seeking mysterious black powder. The two are captured. Instead of being killed, they agree to save the princess — I mean general — and defeat the monsters.
The fight of the monsters is inventive. It’s a mix of “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” and “Attack on Titan”. Language plays a big part of the story. The main female lead speaks English while all the other characters speak Chinese. When our two westerners find out that their English is understood, they switch to Spanish for a private conversation. At other times we see the subtitles do not match the translation given to our characters. They also play with 11th century cultural differences when it comes to bathing.
As I mentioned, the main monster is not a single beast but a swarm of beasts. The creature design was interesting with a large beak and the eyes moved to their shoulders. Shooting one in the eye is fatal so it’s a good thing that our hero has the skills of Robin Hood with a bow. The exponential growth of the swarm was a problem for me. When I saw Max Brooks with writing credit it reaffirmed my revulsion to the “World War Z” style swarming behavior. Even though the CGI was done better than the zombies in 2013, it still created an impossible situation that required a single miraculous solution. And then the movie ended. This is something that Max Brooks does well in his stories to give us a mash-up of things we have seen before in a different way.
I would have liked to see more interpersonal story with the characters. They teased a back story of adventures of our heroes. There’s another scene reminiscent of “The Last Emperor” that made fun of the dynastic leader. The sound track is by Ramin Djawadi who also did “Pacific Rim” score. Here he’s replaces the guitar with drums and a choir of vocals to make a really good soundtrack.
The movie does feature beautiful desert and mountain scenery shot with 3-D in mind. The wall itself is a character. The soldier character costumes are colorful. You can quickly identify archers and other groups by their uniform colors. The weapons are interesting and they use a style of fighting that you can imagine being developed over hundreds of years of fighting these monsters. I did wonder why in all the years no one thought to attack the monsters in their lair. Maybe that is another story and not really a plot hole.
In the end what you have is a pretty good mash-up of things you have seen before told from what is primarily a Chinese movie with a western protagonist point of view. I expect it to be a flop at the box office. Our huge IMAX theater was packed with just a dozen people. Good thing they had reserved seating. I saw it in 3-D. The movie takes advantage of the 3-D to give you a sense of place at all times. I give the movie credit for its visuals, story and pacing. They took a risk but I don’t think U.S. audiences will respond. If you are a fan of Kaiju films (or swarming fast zombies), check it out in 3-D. Otherwise, look for it on Netflix.