It would perhaps be a bit lazy of me to suggest that a blockbuster movie about a giant wall constructed to keep out aliens couldn't be more timely. Sadly though, the sort of unwanted intruders trying to breach the The Great Wall are monstrous enough to deserve a seriously overblown line of defence; even Donald Trump would be quite within his rights to try to keep these guys out.
Matt Damon might be the face of the movie, with a sprinkling of Hollywood talent involved, but The Great Wall is a major step for the Chinese film industry, as it seeks to compete with American cinema's global dominance. It's a outrageously silly, gloriously colourful siege film which pits an ancient order of Chinese soldiers against giant alien reptiles, and while the financial ambitions of the film might be large, there's never a sense that it's taking itself any more seriously than that plot description deserves.
Following the plot of an apparent Chinese myth, the film suggests that the country's famous 5,500-mile wall was built in order to protect the city inhabitants on one side from a race of dinosaur-like aliens on the other, the survivors of a crashed meteor. Having prepared for years for an inevitable battle, a huge army of colour-co-ordinated soldiers (red for archers, blue for acrobats and so on) line the wall, and get an early warning when a grizzled William (Damon) appears, having killed one of the aliens through a mix of chance and his own heroic fighting skills. Naturally, Damon's mercenary is a finer bow-shot then any of the thousands of archers in this trained-from-birth army, but if you're going to go looking for plot flaws, you probably shouldn't even start watching The Great Wall.
If like me, you choose to embrace the silliness, then there's much to enjoy and even admire in the ensuring battle between man and beast. Director Zhang Yimou is a master of the sweeping battle sequence and is capable of creating moments of stunning beauty and spectacle. One unexpectedly breathtaking shot, involving thousands of Chinese lanterns, is the unheralded highlight of the entire film.
But of course, there's a lot of silliness, and it's this which prevents the film from really leaping into the league of the great Hollywood blockbusters. To the great annoyance of the Chinese government, the movie has received fairly sniffy reviews, and while I felt fairly affectionate about its drawbacks by the end, there are many of them. Damon's accent is chief among them – he's alternately American, British, Irish and possibly at one point Australian – while his ludicrously superhuman abilities with a bow and arrow will draw an audible laugh from any audience in one key scene. In fact the impossibly against-the-odds battle does spoil the film's plausibility throughout; there's just no way humanity would be able to stand up to such a threat as the one Yimou has pitted against them.
There are some fairly staple hero-movie themes at play and while the script often teeters on the edge of cliche, it just about manages to walk the line necessary in the circumstances. Damon must make various heroic choices, most basically between friendship and betrayal, greed and goodness, and of course is found to be as virtuous as his bow. Other characters make less morally-applaudable decisions, and either experience the consequences, or get to experience a bit of grace.
Damon's heroic intervention in an otherwise-Chinese battle will probably upset the same people who hated Ryan Gosling trying to save jazz in La La Land, but actually Yimou is careful to give actress Jing Tian centre stage at the crucial moments. In fact, the film's gender politic is one of the very best things about it: there's never any doubt offered that a woman can lead a whole army, and that makes The Great Wall more progressive in that regard than many of its Hollywood counterparts.
There's not much spiritual content, and it's a pretty far-fetched concept. But if you can suspend your disbelief, The Great Wall is pretty good popcorn-fodder, and at times it's even memorably spectacular. The American movie industry might just be looking nervously over its shoulder at its Chinese cousin after this. And that's bound to get President Trump very upset indeed. Perhaps he'll think about building a...