Playing Catch-Up: The Great Wall (dir by Zhang Yimou)

Remember The Great Wall?

The Great Wall came out in February.  Before it was released, I saw the trailer and I thought, “Well, that looks like it might be fun.”  However, I never actually saw the film when it was in theaters.  I think I was still recovering from Fifty Shades Darker when The Great Wall was released so I put off going to see it.  I thought to myself, “That’ll be around for a while.”  Of course, I was wrong.  The Great Wall played for two weeks and then it was gone.

That may not sound like a big deal when you consider the reviews that The Great Wall received.  If not for the fact that Fifty Shades Darker was released a week earlier, The Great Wall would have been the first critical disaster of 2017.  Seriously, the critics hated The Great Wall with a passion that took even me by surprise.  The comments went beyond the usual snarkiness to outright hatred.  Suddenly, The Great Wall — which, to judge from the trailer, looked like a harmless little monster movie — was being held up as an example of everything wrong with modern filmmaking.

The film was even attacked for starring Matt Damon.  As I said before, I thought the trailer looked like fun but, apparently, other critics watched that trailer and found themselves asking, “How dare Matt Damon appear in a movie that’s set in eleventh century China!?” And you know what?  I get it.  Whenever I’m watching a movie about aliens invading the 11th Century, my immediate concern is whether or not the film is historically accurate.  It’s bad enough that Americans are being taught that Matt Damon could survive on Mars.  Do they also have to be told that Matt Damon saved China from the space lizards!?

Even though I missed The Great Wall when it was playing in theaters, I knew that it was a film that I would see eventually.  Whenever a film gets totally slaughtered by the critics, I feel like I have almost a duty to watch the film and judge for myself.  Some of that’s because I don’t trust the majority of critics.  And some of it’s because, as a natural born contrarian, I’m always hopeful for any chance to go against the consensus.  Last month, I finally watched The Great Wall and you know what?

It’s not that bad.

Now, it should be understood that being not that bad doesn’t necessarily mean that The Great Wall is a good movie.   It’s a deeply silly movie and, occasionally, it’s also a profoundly dumb one.  Matt Damon plays a European mercenary who is sneaking around China, searching for gunpowder.  After he is captured by the Chinese and brought to the Great Wall, he is enlisted to help battle a bunch of space lizards.  Apparently, the space lizards attack the wall every 60 years but, this year, they’re arriving early.  Or something like that.  I really couldn’t follow the mythology of the space lizards and that’s probably for the best.  The Great Wall is not a film that demands or benefits from a good deal of deep thought.  This is one of those films where the best plan is to not ask too many questions because the answers probably won’t make any sense anyway.

As dumb as The Great Wall may be, it’s an undeniably entertaining movie.  Under the direction of Zhang Yimou, The Great Wall is a visual feast, full of epic landscapes and swooping cameras.  When a seemingly limitless number of space lizards appear out of nowhere and suddenly charge the wall, it’s impossible not to get caught up in the exciting silliness of it all.  When the Chinese army takes their positions on the Great Wall and prepare to repel the invasion, it doesn’t matter that none of the characters are particularly fleshed out.  Instead, you’re just overwhelmed by the vibrant colors of their armor and the determined fierceness of their expressions.  The Great Wall is shamelessly over the top and nicely self-aware.  This a movie that knows that it is ludicrous and occasionally incoherent and you know what?  The Great Wall is perfectly fine with that.

For all the criticism that he received for appearing in the movie, Matt Damon is ideally cast.  Whenever Damon is on screen, it’s as if he’s entered into a conspiracy with the viewer.  Matt Damon is one of the few actors who can maintain his balance while walking that thin line between drama and parody.  With every arched eyebrow and slightly sarcastic line reading, Damon is saying, “Sure, this is all kind of stupid.  But aren’t we having fun?”

When The Great Wall eventually shows up on the SyFy channel, it’s going to be fun movie to live tweet.  Some films were just meant to be watched and appreciated with a group of your snarkiest friends.  The Great Wall is one such film.


One response to “Playing Catch-Up: The Great Wall (dir by Zhang Yimou)

  1. Pingback: The Things You Find On Netflix: To The Bone (dir by Marti Noxon) | Through the Shattered Lens

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