In 1999, the now infamous film “Star Wars: The Phantom Menace” was released. Featuring an overly-complicated plot involving space politics, characters people wish never existed, and hordes of CGI robots, the film today possesses a small cult following, but the vast majority of its viewers wish they could reclaim their forever lost two hours and sixteen minutes. This year, “The Great Wall,” a film by Chinese director Zhang Yimou, is poised to be the contemporary “Phantom Menace” for many of the same reasons, the most prominent being its not-so-subtle political message.
Of all the film’s issues, none takes more precedence than the forced metaphor of the monsters representing man’s greed. When audiences learn that the mutant lizards are not from a reject Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movie but are instead the spawn of “man’s greed,” there will assuredly be some eye-rolls. Regardless of the monster’s obvious color symbolism, the film preaches that if the monsters (arguably man’s capitalistic greed) are not stopped, they will consume the world. The solution is to eliminate the Queen, who acts as the hive-mind, the source of man’s greed.
To understand the mess that is “The Great Wall,” here is an extremely brief yet surprisingly accurate plot summary: two European mercenaries travel to China in search of “black powder” but instead come across a great wall manned by Teletubby-esque warriors preparing to defend against an invasion of green, oversized, mutated komodo dragons.
The film’s one redeeming quality is its visual effects, and this is understandable since most of the film’s budget went into CGI development; this fact explains the film’s gross lack of any plot whatsoever. To add insult to injury, there is no context for audience members. Within the film’s first thirty minutes, audiences are transported from what appears to be the Badlands of South Dakota to an enormous wall filled with soldiers, who within minutes are fighting an endless horde of CGI lizard creatures. What are these monsters and why do they exist? These answers are not revealed until much later in the film, which is not only confusing but poor storytelling. Instead, the film demands that audiences sit back, relax, and watch red, purple, blue, yellow, and black armored soldiers fight green monsters with absurd, historically inaccurate weapons. If you suffer from epilepsy or if you imagine that you will conjure a migraine after watching random colors of the rainbow clash with jade green for two hours, this movie is not for you.
Alongside a nonexistent plot, the film is also plagued by a host of smaller, yet persistent issues. For example, after the conclusion of the film, I can only remember one name, William. This is not a personal memory slip. I attended the film with two others and neither can remember any other names. The rainbow colored soldiers make a lot more sense in light of this dilemma; it is a testament to the nonexistent character development in this film. It is almost impossible to differentiate one character from another. Secondly, the nature of the monsters is both bizarre and inconsistent. While the monsters are presented as “hive-minded,” on multiple occasions the monsters are often seen exercising free will. This paradox of paradoxes would not be so noticeable if it was not so pervasive throughout the film. Thirdly, there is no attention given to location. While an argument can be made for the film’s location residing solely in China, there is no excuse for poor transitions between scenes taking place in completely unrelated areas. One such example is the movement from a wide shot of the Great Wall to a twisted, green-glowing chasm that looks like it was spliced from “The Return of the King.” Not only is this disorientating but poor cinema at its worst.
“The Great Wall” sells itself as a mindless action flick that sacrifices plot and audience interest for mayhem. With a cast of underdeveloped characters, uninteresting antagonists, no context, and a forced political message, it is difficult to simply appreciate the film as “entertainment.” Because of the surplus of cinematic mayhem, some viewers may have difficulty in remembering who is supposed to win. It’s not the monsters and it’s not the color-coded Chinese warriors.