Two millennia ago, the Chinese began to build a big wall, a tremendous wall, though it's now simply called Great. It took 17 centuries and cost as many as a million lives, mostly workmen who collapsed alongside the rubble. At one corpse for every 30 feet, the locals called it "the longest cemetery in the world." But the Chinese were determined to keep out the aliens, both those yogurt-drinking Tatars from the north and, in Yimou Zhang's CG epic The Great Wall, drooling lizard-things called Tao Tei who crash-landed on Earth in a meteor.
"This is one of the legends," the subtitles intone. Gee, you don't say? Here, the Great Wall has been tricked out with crazy weapons: screaming arrows, secret portals, giant lacrosse sticks, scythes that slice the monsters in half, and, most tragically, the Crane Corps, a flock of girls in electric-blue bodysuits who bungee jump with spears. The lucky ones, like our heroine Commander Lin (Tian Jing), twirl back to safety like gymnasts, their perfect ponytails barely mussed. The dead are counted by the dangling bloody rings.
And there's a real weapon, too: gunpowder, packed into prickly pottery bombs that are — surprise! — authentic to the Ming Dynasty, upping the count of factual accuracies to one. In the 14th century, gunpowder was such an exotic marvel that it's lured mercenaries William (Matt Damon) and Tovar (Pedro Pascal, hilarious) to the middle of China all the way from wherever Europe. "It's the weapon of our dream!" gushes Tovar, who's probably Spanish. When attacked by a Tao Tei, he grabs a red cape and, er, bullfights it. Meanwhile, Damon's wild-haired gringo claims to have soldiered under "many flags," which would explain his shape-shifting accent that's Irish except for when it sounds beamed from Mars.
At first, Zhang, the veteran director behind colorful crossover hits Raise the Red Lantern, Hero and House of Flying Daggers, can't get this hybrid historical sci-fi flick moving any better than a Frankenstein lurch. This is the kind of expensive and goofy movie that audiences love to mock, and Zhang hands out excuses like Halloween candy. Early on, William's small posse is whittled down by two skirmishes that don't make a lick of visual sense. I couldn't count how many people died until he told me. He's so unprepared for his Asian exploit that the 5,500-mile barrier — more than two and a half times longer than the border between the United States and Mexico — is a shock. (At least Damon's blunt-nosed profile does have the look of a man who's run smack into a wall.) He and Tovar are easily captured. These idiots can't tell the world that aliens exist.
We're expecting Damon to play the white savior who trains the Chinese to kill monsters they've been battling for 2,000 years. After all, six white guys wrote the script. When the Tao Tei first launch themselves at the barricades, an uncountable stampede of scales, William dutifully picks up his bow and arrow and orders the locals to aim for the esophagus. But the closer we look at the film, it's clear that Damon isn't the teacher. He's the trophy, the Hollywood movie star bagged for a price. The Great Wall can afford it — back home, it's already made $170 million. That's the crowd it wants to please.
The real star is Tian Jian's pint-size hero, who is as brave and honorable and beautiful as William is self-serving and filthy. "You smell like animals," sniffs fellow prisoner Ballard (Willem Dafoe). "Clean up and they'll feed you." Not only does Damon somehow have more forehead than usual, as though he's been made-up to look more Cro-Magnon, the movie implies he's never even seen his own face. He approaches a wall of shiny brass mirrors as though he's scared his reflection will bite him. Halfway through the film, William and Tovar finally shower, and when they walk into the banquet hall, the Chinese slow clap.
Initially, the film doesn't look much better. Zhang uses 3-D to hide his visual effects behind clouds of dust, and can't think of a more interesting design for the Tao Tei than the post-Avatar model of making an ordinary reptile bigger and toothier. If you've seen one SUV-sized Komodo dragon with four rows of drool-slicked fangs, you've seen them all. (Although, what I hadn't seen until now are shots of these villains rescuing their friends and carrying away their dead — a detail that makes them almost, well, human, even if the movie eventually reduces them to ghouls.) Our early glimpses of Commander Lin's Nameless Order are of color-coded soldiers tromping around in phalanxes of red, yellow, purple, silver, and blue. They look as bright and inconsequential as a board game, until Lin's Crane Corps take their first fatal dives and we realize Zhang is taking this silliness seriously.
Suddenly, so do we — a little. Zhang is out for blood. Now he shoots arrows at the screen until we cower behind our popcorn, and assembles a show-stopper of an action sequence that mixes Moby Dick and The Mist, with Damon lost in a fog battling creatures he can't even see. Instead, the monsters have been shot with noise-making harpoons that get louder when they gallop toward their prey. Zhang forces us to focus on our senses. It's terrifying and terrific, and in the climax, he nearly tops it with a chase sequence set in a kaleidoscopic stained-glass tower.
The Great Wall doesn't have the lunacy that made last year's Gods of Egypt a hoot. Zhang can't kick his craving for respectability, even if he's making a movie that flips the middle finger at historicity. Then again, the actual Great Wall has always parried myths: the myth that you can see it from space, Marco Polo's theory that it warded off the biblical devils Gog and Magog, the 1899 American newspaper hoax that China planned to tear it down to build a road, and, above all, the fable that the Wall actually worked. The Tatars broke through in 1550, and the Mongols and Manchus followed. It's possible that building the wall killed more villagers than it saved. But hey, why let facts get in the way of an alien-stomping adventure?