Release Date(s)2016 (May 23, 2017)
Studio(s)Legendary East/Atlas/China Film Group (Universal)
- Film/Program Grade: C
- Video Grade: A+
- Audio Grade: A+
- Extras Grade: D
It is the time of the Song Dynasty, during the reign of the Emperor Renzong (1010-1063 AD). A group of European mercenaries have traveled to China in search of gunpowder, but they’re ambushed by bandits, leaving only William Garin (Matt Damon) and Pero Tovar (Pedro Pascal) left alive. While sheltering one night, Garin and Tovar are attacked by a strange monster, unlike anything they’ve ever seen, which they kill. The next day, they reach the Great Wall and are taken captive by the Nameless Order that guards the Middle Kingdom beyond. The commander of the Order, General Shao (Zhang Hanyu) and his advisors, including Lin Mae (Jing Tian), are trying to decide what to do with them, when the Wall is attacked by thousands more of these monsters. Garin and Tovar are freed during the battle by another European, Sir Ballard (Willem Dafoe), but end up fighting the creatures bravely, which impresses Shao. Soon, Garin and Tovar learn that the monsters are alien – brought to Earth by a green meteor which landed in the mountains many generations before. Every sixty years, the monsters rise again to attack the Great Wall, and it’s the Nameless Order who must fight them off. Garin finds mutual respect with Lin, and perhaps the initial stirrings of a romantic attraction. But when the creatures strike once more, Garin must decide whether to flee… or fight alongside Lin for an honorable cause not his own.
Did you get all that? Well, don’t feel too bad if you didn’t. It doesn’t much matter. I watched the whole film and still had to look some of that up.
Directed by the great Zhang Yimou, whose past work includes such soaring classics as Hero, House of Flying Daggers, and Curse of the Golden Flower, The Great Wall marks his first English-language collaboration with Hollywood. But compared to those other films, this effort feels oddly generic. It’s not a bad film per se, but none of its characters are more than scantly drawn. Clocking in at just 103 minutes, it also feels as if there’s a great deal of story missing. What you get is a series of set pieces, one CG battle after another not unlike those you might find in Peter Jackson’s Middle Earth series. But whereas Jackson’s battles are always grounded by characters you care about, the battles here are pretty to look at but not much interesting or engaging. The extensive use of CG also detracts from what’s long been a strength of this director – endlessly inventive action staging on an epic scale, mostly shot practically. Indeed, Zhang was asked to direct the opening and closing ceremonies of the 2008 Beijing Summer Olympic Games for this very reason. Hero, House of Flying Daggers, Curse of the Golden Flower – these films all employ some digital effects, to be sure, but they all have a much more tangible sense of reality. Hell, I’d pay real money to see any of those films in 4K Ultra HD. They’re each stunning achievements, nothing short of dazzling. But I have little desire ever to see The Great Wall again.
At least it can be said that the viewing experience is easy on the eyes. The Great Wall dazzles on Ultra HD. The film was shot digitally using a variety of Red and ARRI cameras at resolutions up to 6.5K and finished as a 4K Digital Intermediate at the 2.39:1 scope aspect ratio. That DI has been given a healthy HDR grade that offers dark yet highly detailed shadows and gleaming highlights. This is a colorful film, but the HDR lends a strong boost to the saturation over the already fine Blu-ray. The armor of the Nameless Order shines in brilliant blues and golds. In the film’s opening sequence, the warm tans of the desert landscape come alive against vibrant blue skies. There’s so much detail to be seen here in the texturing of rock, grassland, stone, and even the strange filigreed patterns on the monsters’ skulls. Every bit of the image is crisp and clean. This is 4K eye candy from start to finish.
It’s fine ear candy too. The 4K disc boasts an aggressive English Dolby Atmos mix (7.1 Dolby TrueHD compatible) that offers smooth and lively movement of directional cues around the soundstage – arrows, flaming projectiles, screeching monsters – and the clash of weaponry flies all round. Dialogue is clean and clear, the staging is precise with very nice depth, bass is firm and supportive on the low end, and the score is well woven into the mix. The height channels are used to smooth and extend the immersion overhead early on, but really kick in during the battle sequences, particularly when the acrobatic “Crane” troops leap over the Wall to engage in battle, and also late in the film when Lin pursues the monsters in her hot-air balloons. The Atmos mix is fun and reference-quality in its own right.
There are no extras on the 4K disc itself, but the package includes the film in 1080p HD on Blu-ray, with the following bonus features all in HD:
- Deleted and Extended Scenes (8 scenes – 6:49 in all)
- Matt Damon in China (2:44)
- Working with Director Zhang Yimou (3:07)
- The Great Wall: Visual Effects (3:06)
- Man vs. Monster (9:22)
- Weapons of War (3:15)
- Designing a Spectacular World (3:32)
A couple of the deleted scenes are interesting, but most of this material is just EPK filler. You also get the usual Digital Copy code on a paper insert.
The Great Wall is a pleasure to look at, and is certainly worthy of Saturday afternoon matinee viewing, but that’s about all. Damon suffers here from a fate that’s plagued many a good actor in the digital era: He looks stiff as cardboard, gruffly shuffling his way trough a sea of armored extras and CG monsters, managing only occasionally to connect with his character and with the audience. I wouldn’t pay full price for this film, but if 4K demo material is what you’re after, you could do far worse than picking this disc up on sale. Meanwhile, we can hope that some of Zhang’s better films will find their way to this format soon.
- Bill Hunt