One of those movies I had absolutely no interest in until suddenly I had to see it, this one became imperative when the first reviews came in describing it as that enticing combination of ludicrous and uber-serious, while also being completely misguided. Plus, I was like: “Monster attacks. How am I not going to see that?”
There was a mild “controversy” that this is somehow racial whitewashing because you have a white guy headlining a Chinese film, but actually the whole thing has to be seen in the context of China trying to make a mainstream film that would cross over to American audiences, and casting an American in the lead in order to draw Americans in, which is long a tradition in foreign films [i.e. all the spaghetti westerns, the original Godzilla, numerous Asian and Italian horror and genre films]. So I think the racial whitewashing angle is a non-issue [not to mention that all but three characters are Chinese], and in fact may have been created by the marketing department to generate some interest in this movie. Anyway, the way to look at this is entirely as a Chinese attempt to make a mainstream blockbuster, and we can only evaluate it in that regard.
The result? Godawful. Absolutely godawful. But there are some few things to recommend it. The main thing is that, because it’s meant as a showcase for China, you get a lot of Chinese exotic landscapes, a lot of CGI great wall, and a lot of elaborate and colorful ancient Chinese costumes, although I have serious doubts as to how authentic they may be. You also get—as an unexpected surprise benefit—a look at Medieval Chinese warfare, which is, if nothing else, at least a change from the old boring pistols and machine guns.
Another nice thing, this is a Chinese movie, and as such reflects Chinese culture; it doesn’t follow Western story beats, it has a slightly different sense of timing and action choreography and is just generally foreign, which makes it somewhat interesting. For example, one big difference is that violence is not “awesome” and bloodless here, it’s actually surprisingly nasty. An example of this is that, when we see the foot of the wall after a battle a few days before, we can see numerous dead bodies still laying down there. In an American film they would all simply have vanished, or the scene would be set elsewhere, since it would seem too horrifying to face the reality that when a bunch of people die on a battlefield, there are still dead bodies there days later.
It occurred to me that, what with globalism and global entertainment, we will soon lose any sense of distinction between the cultures until they’re all slightly different shades of the same thing—this very movie is a Chinese attempt to copy a Western blockbuster. It also occurred to me that lefty forces that might see themselves as the strongest defenders of diverse cultures are actually one of the greatest forces making everything bland and all the same, as there are a list of cliches that must be avoided, other cliches that must be embraced, and so many rules to avoid offending anyone on Earth that the whole creative process gets stifled until only the blandest possible product can make it through.
The story concerns Matt Damon meeting people who created the great wall to keep out a race of lizard-lions who came to Earth in a meteor. The creatures are rather dull—I was honestly hoping for dragons. And it’s the tired old thing where if you kill the queen they all die, because otherwise the script would not be able to invent a way in which a multitude of creatures all get killed.
If you are coming to watch an amusingly bad movie, however, there’s good news. The whole thing is just so absolutely ridiculous and they’re all taking it so seriously it can provide a lot of good fun, at least until it suddenly becomes astonishingly boring [a few people walked out of my Thursday advance screening], but by then there’s not much time left.
There are some massive filmmaking blunders, part of this film’s lightning-fast oscillations between “This is not that bad!” and “This is God. Awful.” The first is during an opening attack, Damon and friends are chilling at a campground, get attacked, and then—sudden, yawning abyss right next to them! Like, there is NO indication that there is a bottomless pit RIGHT NEXT TO THEM (like, if they rolled over in their sleep, they would fall into it), until suddenly the monster falls into it, and it’s never seen again. Another, they capture a beast and SUDDENLY there’s a representative of the Emperor who says it must be delivered to him. Another, Damon is out on the battlefield alone when SUDDENLY his friend is, inexplicably, there with him. Then there’s the most mysterious, in which the female lead and friends take off in hot-air balloons to fight the beasts, and 90% of the balloons burn up and crash, like I mean seriously like 180 out of 200 burn, and this is NEVER MENTIONED. You’re kind of left sitting there like “Am I seeing this right?” Also, gee, is this that brilliant a culture if they’re using a mode of transportation with such a low success rate? And should Damon be getting in one when they are basically assured death traps?
One other thing is that the film has decent-enough visuals. I have to say I was never completely blown away, but it definitely makes use of the 3D and goes out of its way to give you something pretty to look at.
So there you are: an amusing mix of the not-bad and the godawful, with some major, glaring mistakes, but small amounts of interest. No real reason to see it–except to laugh–but if you did, you could do worse.