The Great Wall

Cast: Matt Damon, Jing Tian, Pedro Pascal, Willem Dafoe, Andy Lau

Director: Zhang Yimou

Writers: Carlo Bernard, Doug Miro, Tony Gilroy


The critical response to this movie has me quite perplexed. Personally, I didn’t like this movie at all. I thought it was a stupid, ridiculous, misguided mess of a film. While hardly a critical darling, this film was given a more positive reception than I thought it could possibly warrant. When I actually read some of those reviews though, what I found was that they weren’t exactly positive per se, but rather forgiving. Many of these reviews conceded that the film was silly, that it didn’t make any sense, that Damon’s performance is wooden, that a lot of the CGI isn’t at all convincing. They conceded some or all of those things, yet maintained that they enjoyed the movie anyway. A lot of this perhaps stems from the respect many critics have for Zhang Yimou, one of the most revered directors working in China today. Maybe some of them were swept away by the spectacle. Or maybe I’m making too much out of all this and all those critics simply enjoyed a silly, messy movie for what it is. All I can really say is that I didn’t like it.

The movie follows two European mercenaries, William Garin (Matt Damon) and Pero Tovar (Pedro Pascal) who are attacked on their way to China by some unknown creature. The creature massacres their entire troop but then flees after having its arm severed by William. The two survivors reach the Great Wall, where they hope to discover the secret of gunpowder, and are taken prisoner by The Nameless Order, a secretive Chinese army. Their leaders General Shao (Zhang Hanyu) and Strategist Wang (Andy Lau) reveal that they have been charged with the defence of China against a horde of alien monsters, the same kind that William and Tovar encountered, which rise every sixty years. When a wave of the beasts arrive and attack the Great Wall, William and Tovan are freed by Sir Ballard (Willem Dafoe), a European prisoner of many years, join the fight, and earn the respect of the General and of Commander Lin Mae (Jing Tian). They resolve to aid the Chinese in their resistance against the insurmountable odds facing them.

As a viewer I am far from immune to spectacle, and I must confess that this movie does have some. If there are two things that are never lacking in Yimou’s films, it’s stylish action and a gorgeous colour palette. When the film established its Helm’s Deep setup and gave us our first big action scene, I was carried away for a while by the neat production and costumes, the gymnastic fighting style of the Crane troop, and the baffling insanity of it all. But then it wore off. Then I started getting distracted by the nonsensical plot, the stilted dialogue, Damon’s inability to settle on an accent and the overblown CGI. Then I started finding the movie tedious. Once I got past the oriental setting and the action scenes I found that The Great Wall was just a formulaic monster movie. There’s a roguish hero rising to the occasion, a deus ex machina plot device in the form of a magnet, a generic lesson about trust and honour and dozens upon dozens of expendable CGI monsters getting hacked and slashed along the way. That’s about it.

While Damon is no stranger to action, he looks so uncomfortably out of place in this film. The accent, the clothing, the bow and arrow, the ponytail, he looks and feels about as convincing here as John Wayne did playing Genghis Khan. The only difference is that in this case it isn’t technically whitewashing; it’s just awkward. (On that subject, I think that they could very easily have given this film a Chinese protagonist (Jing Tian’s character maybe) but I doubt it would have made the film much better). Pascal is a little more at home in this setting, possibly because of his excellent turn in Game of Thrones, but doesn’t really fare much better than Damon. The movie tries to establish them as some kind of medieval Butch-Sundance bromance, but the banter between them is hopelessly contrived. Dafoe meanwhile is so wasted in his villainous role that I honestly forgot he was even in the film. The Chinese cast, particularly Tian and Lau, fare far better but are unfortunately still trapped in a tiresome, senseless movie.

The Great Wall is a landmark in that it marks a big-budget, high profile cinematic collaboration between the USA and China, home of the two biggest movie audiences in the world, aimed at a global audience. It also marks Zhang Yimou’s first English-language production. Sadly it simply isn’t a good film. It is confused, illogical and derivative. The action and the visuals will work for some, as long as they’re willing to turn their brains off, and that’s okay I guess. Mindless spectacle is all well and good; this one just didn’t work for me. It wasn’t epic enough, compelling enough, or bonkers enough for me to get into. I’d like to think that this movie might at least bring about further cinematic collaboration between the East and the West and allow Chinese cinema to gain an even stronger foothold in the rest of the world, I just hope that the next movie is better.

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Jason Bourne

Cast: Matt Damon, Tommy Lee Jones, Alicia Vikander, Vincent Cassel, Julia Stiles, Riz Ahmed

Director: Paul Greengrass

Writers: Paul Greengrass, Christopher Rouse


There is hardly an action movie today that doesn’t owe some kind of debt to the Bourne trilogy. After the slick, stylised action of Cold War cinema, Bourne pioneered a brutally intense style befitting the post-9/11 age we live in. Through narrow framing, camera shakes and sporadic editing these three films developed a style of action that feels more energetic and severe than those before it. It is a style that has since been widely adopted, emulated, misused, parodied and developed throughout the last decade. With all the time that has gone by since the trilogy ended, Jason Bourne is faced with the task of recapturing that same feeling without simply feeling like yet another imitation, something that The Bourne Legacy was unable to do. Given how Matt Damon long proclaimed that he would not reprise Bourne unless Paul Greengrass was on board and the script felt right, there was reason to be optimistic about this possibility. Sadly, the movie did not live up to the promise.

A decade after recovering from his amnesia and exposing Operation Blackbriar, Jason Bourne (Matt Damon) been living in exile. He is found in Greece by Nicky Parsons (Julia Stiles) who informs him of a discovery she’s made regarding Bourne’s recruitment into Blackbriar and how his father might have been involved. Her intrusion into the CIA’s mainframe was detected by the head of the cyber ops division Heather Lee (Alicia Vikander) and reported to the CIA’s Director Robert Dewey (Tommy Lee Jones). To stop her, the CIA dispatches an operative known as the Asset (Vincent Cassel), who then proceeds to disrupt Nicky’s meeting with Bourne in Athens. From there Bourne must go on the run once again, must learn the truth of a mystery from his past, and must discover whatever secret it is the CIA is trying to cover up.

Jason Bourne is essentially more of the same and that is both a strength and a weakness. The action is technically still phenomenal. The scene where the Asset chases Bourne and Nicky through the streets of Athens while a riot takes place is a stunning sequence. The fistfights are as intense and energetic as ever. The impact however is somewhat lulled due to the widespread adoption of the trilogy’s style. This type of action is no longer unique to Bourne, therefore it doesn’t really stand out amongst all the other action-thrillers being made today. A compelling story with interesting characters would have been extremely helpful in this regard, but Jason Bourne failed to deliver on that front. Whereas the government agents in the first three movies were intently focused on finding Bourne and stopping him from exposing Operations Treadstone and Blackbriar, the main antagonist of this movie concerns himself with a subplot that is wholly immaterial to Bourne’s story. This subplot, which deals with issues of privacy and surveillance, is the movie’s attempt to be socially relevant, but in execution it steals away from the central narrative and does not affect the plot in any meaningful way.

The disparity in story made it difficult to become engaged with the characters. Tommy Lee Jones dedicated so much of his screen-time to a story irrelevant to Bourne’s that the link between them was not nearly as strong as it was with Brian Cox, Joan Allen and David Strathairn. Some viewers might appreciate the movie’s attempt to tackle such a critical political and social issue, but for me the central conflict of Jason Bourne just wasn’t personal enough. Vikander, who is plays more of a role in the hunt for Bourne than Jones, does a little better here. Damon himself is sufficiently tough and intense and Bourne, who has never been a particularly complex or emotive character, but does feel a bit like he’s on autopilot at points. This wasn’t as glaring as it was with Stiles though who was practically asleep in all of her scenes. Cassel I think was the one performer who really came through as a highly trained assassin with a personal vendetta against Bourne.

Sadly Jason Bourne is fated to join the line of unnecessary and underwhelming sequels in great franchises that should have left well enough alone, along with The Godfather: Part III and Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. While by no means bad, it wasn’t worth the wait and did not live up to the promise. After years of waiting for the right script to come along, I wonder what it was about this offering that convinced Damon and Greengrass that this movie just had to be made. Jason Bourne is a solid enough movie in its own right but under the shadow of its franchise it isn’t up to par. If all you want from a Bourne sequel is more of Matt Damon kicking ass and taking names, then this movie is just fine. If you want a movie that brings the Bourne franchise to new heights and inspires the same level of intrigue and captivation as the original Bourne movies, you will be sorely disappointed.

★★★

The Martian

Cast: Matt Damon, Jessica Chastain, Kristen Wiig, Jeff Daniels, Michael Peña, Kate Mara, Sean Bean, Sebastian Stan, Aksel Hennie, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Donald Glover

Director: Ridley Scott

Writer: Drew Goddard


This is a film that surprised me for two major reasons. Firstly the film was much more enjoyable than I was expecting it to be. When I heard about the film’s premise I was expecting something much darker and more despairing, kind of in the same vein as 127 Hours. I was not prepared for how funny and exciting this film turned out to be. Secondly is because the film was directed by Ridley Scott. It occurred to me after I saw The Martian that it’s been quite a while since Scott has made a great film (heck, it’s been a while since he made a good film). I initially found this film to be a bit out of character for him until I realised what a versatile filmmaker he really is. In his time he has made a claustrophobic horror film in Alien, a philosophical mystery in Blade Runner, a heartening buddy movie in Thelma and Louise and a historical epic in Gladiator. Therefore why not an uplifting survival story as well? In any case I think The Martian marks a return to form for Scott and I hope there’s plenty more to come.

The story is that of the astronaut Mark Watney (Matt Damon), a part of a manned mission to Mars that gets cut short by an intense storm. In the chaos that ensues Mark is injured and presumed dead and so the mission commander Melissa Lewis (Jessica Chastain) is left with no choice but to go on without him. Stranded on a planet with a limited amount of food and supplies and without any means of communication, Mark must rely on his intellect, skills and spirit to make contact with NASA and to ensure his own survival until a rescue mission can be arranged. The team at NASA, led by its head Teddy Sanders (Jeff Daniels) and the mission directors Mitch Henderson (Sean Bean) and Vincent Kapoor (Chiwetel Ejiofor), soon learn of his survival and work vigorously on the effort to bring him home safely. Meanwhile Melissa and her crew are wracked with guilt from leaving their crewmate and friend behind and therefore undertake to ensure his rescue by any means necessary.

Any film that features Matt Damon as a lone astronaut being stranded on a forbidding planet as well as Jessica Chastain is bound to receive comparisons with Christopher Nolan’s visual spectacle Interstellar. However, whereas Interstellar was (mostly but not entirely) characterless, anaemic and self-indulgent, The Martian is positively bursting with life, flavour and colour. The characters actually talk and act like real people. The emotional stakes of the film’s conflict feels authentic. The planet even feels like a character in itself, a great red desert both beautiful and ominous that is so full of majesty and wonder and yet so desolate and remote. Being stranded in such a place with little to no hope of survival or rescue is a daunting concept and the isolation and futility of such a prospect would be enough to drive any man insane. Yet this film depicts Mark’s harrowing ordeal with such humour and heart that The Martian becomes an absolute delight to watch.

Matt Damon kills it as Mark in his effort to stay alive and to keep himself sane. Given the dire situation he faces Mark resorts to using humour as a defence mechanism in order to keep his spirits up, which I felt was a very human way to handle such a predicament. He records daily vlogs detailing his thoughts and endeavours as he attempts to “science the shit” out of his resources in order to keep himself alive and does so with such an anxious yet heartening attitude that he becomes all the more relatable. This could have been compelling enough as a one-man survival story, much like Gravity, but amazingly the rest of the ensemble shines as well. The scientists at NASA are made up of interesting and diverse characters all working together to deal with this crisis. I really like how the film resisted the urge to include some sort of clichéd, bureaucratic antagonist trying to halt the rescue mission as a means of generating conflict. These characters are all on the same side and are all working towards the same goal, even when they disagree with each other. The only characters I didn’t feel that much of a connection to were the crewmembers. I thought they were likeable but underdeveloped.

Another thing to say is that this film is a technical marvel. The visuals are simply gorgeous to look at, particularly the Martian landscape which I thought had a real otherworldly feel to it. The 3D also works really well by drawing the viewer further into the world they’ve created. I thought the film did a wonderful job of depicting this alien environment and the challenges Mark faces in inhabiting it. As someone who doesn’t even have a GCSE in science I can hardly account for the film’s scientific accuracy. I did however find the science to be both interesting and coherent. I think it’s probably safe to assume that the film isn’t 100% accurate but, as a standard inexpert viewer, I went along with it just fine. The methods adopted by Mark seemed reasonable and plausible given the context and my suspension of disbelief was never stretched beyond reason.

There really isn’t much I can fault about this film. The characters are great, the humour is hilarious, the story is well told and the visuals are superb. My only real criticism is that I think the survival theme could have been taken a bit further. When I compare this film to, say, Gravity, I didn’t really feel like this film ever really expressed that same level of danger and desperation. Mark does have moments of uncertainty but he never loses his charm or wit through any of it. So upbeat is this film’s tone that I thought the tension never really reached the point where the possibility of Mark’s survival was brought into question. That aside, The Martian is nevertheless an excellent viewing experience and a wonderfully entertaining film that provides a funny, moving and epic account of the human spirit.

★★★★★