In a nod to a popular bit of apocrypha about the Great Wall of China, that it’s the only man-made structure visible from space, this vivacious but uneven blockbuster opens with the camera zooming toward the Universal Pictures logo until the venerable globe turns into an aerial shot of the Middle Kingdom, with its legendary landmark clearly visible below. This image neatly captures the financial background of this largest-ever co-production between the United States and China: an American film studio, facing declining revenue at home, looking toward the most populous nation on the planet to tap into the enormous market potential of its 1.3 billion citizens.
The Great Wall’s narrative essentially allegorizes its own production scheme, telling a tale of a Westerner, William (Matt Damon), who, after looking to make bank in China by stealing its resources, forgoes his own greed and learns to work with the locals to the mutual benefit of all parties. Casting Damon in the starring role has been criticized as an attempt to graft a white-savior narrative onto a distinctly Asian story, but the actor’s presence is central to the film’s cross-cultural ambitions, both because a Hollywood superstar like Damon is necessary to sell The Great Wall to the masses in America and because his character serves as a symbol of Sino-American cooperation.
William is a mercenary searching for gunpowder along China’s Silk Road, who takes refuge from a horde of dragon-like monsters in one of the fortified turrets of the Great Wall. It’s there that he finds the Nameless Order, a special army trained to fight creatures—known as Taotie—with catapults, cannons, arrows, and spears. Setting aside William’s naturally selfish and cynical inclinations, a pretty, English-speaking officer, Commander Lin (Jing Tian), convinces him to join the Nameless Order in fending off the attacking Taotie.
The film’s extensive battle sequences are a showcase for director Zhang Yimou’s genius at marshalling an army of extras in beautifully coordinated movement (a skill he exhibited prominently in his opening ceremonies for the 2008 Beijing Olympics). Zhang dresses different regiments of the Nameless Order in wildly exaggerated armor, arranging them in vibrant swatches of color. The combat is fanciful, at times even whimsical; there’s an escape via hot-air balloon and a regiment of bungee-jumping female soldiers. Zhang is clearly more invested in visual splendor than kinetic combat or military logic. In the film’s best moments, the screen becomes an almost impressionistic swirl of color, fire, man, and monster, as in the finale set in a tower lined with stained glass, which—recalling a visual motif from The Flowers of War—illuminates the sequence in glistening, kaleidoscopic shafts of light.
Zhang, though, is often hindered by the conventions of large-scale blockbuster filmmaking. The screenplay—by Carlo Bernard, Doug Miro, and Tony Gilroy—is feebly plotted, with stakes that are never properly established and set in a vaguely sketched world that Zhang makes little attempt to sharpen or define. The Taotie are striking, suggesting Chinese ritual bronze art as conceived by H.R. Giger, but they abide by arbitrary rules (for some reason, the creatures are immobilized by magnets), which renders the final victory over them cheap and weightless. The characters are also little more than cardboard cutouts delivering blandly aphoristic dialogue in indeterminate accents, reducing stars from both sides of the Pacific into blank ciphers.
The Great Wall finds Zhang struggling to leave his personal stamp on a project that’s been designed by a committee intent on balancing the requirements of the Chinese film bureaucracy against the demands of the global box office. In the end, the filmmaker essentially fights this battle to a draw, producing an oftentimes beautiful film that’s unmistakably the work of a great director but also a clearly compromised one. If The Great Wall was designed to serve as proof of the potential of U.S.-China cinematic collaboration, it ends up doing so in ways the filmmakers likely never intended, demonstrating that this sort of ambitious co-production can yield a blockbuster every bit as frustrating as the ones Hollywood regularly churns out. As Commander Lin tells William near the film’s end, “We are more similar than I thought.”