On spatial orientation, the temperamental textures of computer animation, and The Great Wall's kinship with a legend of heavy metal
The Great Wall Universal Pictures
Director: Zhang Yimou
Screenplay: Carlo Bernard, Doug Miro and Tony Gilroy
Starring: Matt Damon, Jing Tian, Andy Lau, Zhang Hanyu, Lu Han, Pedro Pascal, Willem Dafoe and Wang Junkai
Rated PG-13 / 1 hour, 43 minutes / 2.35:1
February 17, 2017
(out of four)
It's the question mankind has been asking itself for months: What is Matt Damon doing in China? And while it has a simple answer - he's a European mercenary who stumbles into a battle between Chinese warriors and ancient monsters, of course - the question does find an accidental relevance. Nothing and no one in this movie - not Matt Damon nor his beard and ponytail - belongs with anything or anyone else. Nothing fits; everything seems out of place, and only a little of that is by deliberate choice. At the worst of times the film's startling, almost hilarious lack of spatial awareness - one object's intended proximity to another being so utterly implausible - becomes so unsightly that it only reinforces the point.
In wide shots and action scenes, there is too distinct a feeling of manual composition, each character or creature - every weapon or structure or piece of shrubbery - clicked and dragged into place, a bunch of individual pieces of data stubbornly resisting the attempt to be maneuvered into a coherent whole. Damon might as well have saved himself some time and, instead of making the trip overseas for the location shoot, just gotten himself mo-capped, The Congress-style, and sent over everything the production team needed. "Yeah, the file's got all my archery stuff, and lots of cool physical movements ... yeah, there's me running and jumping and everything ... yeah, all that, plus at least nine facial expressions. Should be good to go. I just Dropbox'd it to you. Let me know when you get it and go ahead and shoot over that $20 million. Yeah, I've got PayPal."
If I didn't know any better, it wouldn't have surprised me to find out the filmmakers had Jungle Booked all the outdoor sequences, and just took care of the interiors on a small set. I'm a big believer in the physical and the tactile in filmmaking, but maybe the Jungle Book approach would've been an improvement. At least then there may have been some textural consistency to the landscapes and the creatures that inhabit them. In this version, those CGI monsters are a persistent eyesore - especially in wide shot, when they're crammed together like an army of ants, their computer-generated forms plopped on top of physical spaces and looking all the worse for it. That's the thing with these kinds of special effects - it's not about how realistic they look, but how they blend and interact with their environment. There are films in which the textural contrast is part of the effect, or part of the joke - or both, as with, say, the films of Stephen Chow, whose CGI has an elastic playfulness that fits with the cartoon logic of his stories. Or consider the use of actual cartoons in the likes of Who Framed Roger Rabbit, with its old-fashioned, "flatly" drawn characters that interacted seamlessly with physical actors and sets. That may be an extreme example, but perhaps an extreme example is needed. In Hollywood's modern blockbuster department, in Peter Jackson's early-2000s work he showed a real mastery of blending and matching the textures and color tones of his digital creations with his physical ones. It's not that the results were always perfect, but he at least seemed to be aware of the limitations of his CGI, and gave great care to the relationship between his disparate types of images. The effect, as with King Kong, was something akin to a glossy, romantically retouched photograph, a version of live-action somewhere betwixt reality and animation, memory and fantasy.
But The Great Wall, like too many of its contemporaries, goes for a sort of photorealism that its CGI concoctions simply cannot achieve. (The green tint of their scaly skin doesn't help; as our friend the Hulk can attest, it's been a difficult color to get right in this context.) The more of them show up, and the closer they get to their human counterparts, their very lack of physical presence stands out more and more. During battle, the wide compositions are muddy masses of unnatural color and synthetic light. And somewhere in the middle of all that is Damon, occasionally pausing to utter portentous statements about honor (as a nationless merc, he claims none) and trust (he trusts no one!) that spell out the inexorably redemptive direction of his character arc more clearly than the actual character arc does. He speaks his banal dialogue through an accent that sounds like what would happen if Leo DiCaprio's Gangs of New York character went undercover as a Midwesterner.
It's not entirely his fault. The script is an atrocity - all telegraphed intentions that lead only to their obvious conclusions and nowhere in between; lots of leaden exposition whose straight-faced delivery only enhances the silliness; a couple of poor attempts at banter. It's the kind of thing you'd expect to have fallen into the hands of someone like McG. Maybe Louis Leterrier if I'm being generous. Even they might have declined. Instead The Great Wall is in the hands of Chinese auteur Zhang Yimou, about whose efforts I am compelled to say very little. Out of respect. If anything, this movie proves that even a great international voice can make a blockbuster as brainless and lifeless as our standard homespun mediocrities. The story elements, aside from an 11th-Century China setting that is certainly unique, would feel right at home in an American fantasy epic. A pair of soldiers (Damon and Pedro Pascal) who move from allegiance to allegiance and war to war, accidentally getting roped into a centuries-old battle between a secret army called the Nameless Order and the aforementioned horde of monsters that for some reason pop up every six decades. (Yes, the reason is explained.) (Badly.)
There's a nifty organization to the Imperial Order's forces, which involve several specialized subgroups whose skills are deployed with virtuoso choreography, a veritable circus of armored acrobats. One of those specialties is archery, which just happens to be accidental prisoner-of-war William's (Damon) specialty as well. Even as his partner and a third European, Ballard (Willem Dafoe), hatch a plan to escape with a load of gunpowder, William decides this, finally, is a cause worth fighting for. I don't exactly know what the Order needs with another archer - they've got plenty - but it is important that William learns some important lessons about duty and loyalty, which he learns because something or another. And also he happens to possess a magnetic rock, which coincidentally is the monsters' kryptonite - being close to the magnet deafens them and essentially puts them to sleep. Kudos to the screenwriter who came up with that gem.
The film's violence has none of the music that we saw in Zhang's Hero or House of Flying Daggers, but there's at least a clarity of composition that many big-budget spectacles lack. The shimmering colors of the Imperial Order's uniforms (color-coordinated by group) stand out nicely against the greys and browns that surround them, and Zhang - intent on involving us closely in the action whenever and however possible - memorably introduces us to what I suppose we should call Upside Down Armored Underboob Cam. Let no one say Zhang is not an adroit practitioner of bosom-based cinematography.
That there are moments and images to savor, mixed in with all the rubbish, almost makes it worse. The film's best scene - a quiet cat-and-mouse on the smoky ground of a battlefield, built around and punctuated by a sound effect - is the only time the monsters (called the Taotie) are used effectively, precisely because the thickness of the white smoke blurs the spatial problems that wreck every other moment in which they come in close contact with a human. But no impressive moment or ingenious camera placement can make up for the fact that this is a movie with far too many of the worst characteristics of our standard summer movies, not the least of which is the over-reliance on sketchy effects work. I know this is a monster movie, but it spends a lot of time giving us a good look at creatures that are, collectively, an eyesore, while at the same time boasting the likes of Andy Lau (!) in its cast and somehow giving him virtually nothing to do. The attention - not to mention 80 percent of the one-sheet peppering theatre walls everywhere - has been given primarily to Damon, but the movie wastes not only him but Lau and Jing Tian, as the commander with whom William forms a bond; for all the presumptive importance of her character, and for all her heroism in battle, the film never seems to know who or what she is beyond a mouthpiece for platitudinal ideas about loyalty and trust.
And finally, there lies the question even more important than that first one, which is: What the hell does the Great Wall of China have to do with anything? This is the most silently revealing flaw in the film. The wall is simply a barrier standing between monsters and the army fighting those monsters - a fortress that protects one side of the fight and taunts the other. But nothing further is done with the idea - which is to say, nothing further is done with the very title, perhaps the very point, of the film. A movie called The Great Wall sees that Great Wall as a utilitarian functionality. An obstacle to be used and ignored. As wonders of the world go, this is surely the most underwhelming example since that Stonehenge replica landed on Spinal Tap's stage in all its miniature glory.