The end crawl of Yang Zhimou’s epic fantasy gives individual credit cards and broody portrait shots for about a dozen people – though, in the cut issued internationally, a lot of folks who seem to be stars in China barely get two lines and a close-up, standing about in the background while Matt Damon shoulders most of the drama … he’s William, a British mercenary archer who is in China to get hold of the world-changing secret of ‘black powder’, and finds himself captured on the wall which – it now turns out – has been built to keep vast tracts of lands safe from big-mouthed lizard monsters with vulnerable eyes in their shoulders (apparently alien invaders) who attack every sixty years. Fair enough.
While his scene-stealing comrade Tovar (Pedro Pascal) and long-time, undercharacterised captive Ballard (Willem Dafoe) stick to their self-interested mission to grab the super-weapon and enjoy a good reception in all the brothels and counting houses of Europe, William comes to admire the fighting spirit of the locals and seems chastely taken with Commander Lin (Tian Jing), whose speciality is bungee-jumping with a spear into the monster hordes. Damon isn’t bad as a redeemable rogue, but there’s a problem in focusing on such a small story when there’s a vast alien invasion going on – imagine if Independence Day spent 75% of its time with a guy more interested in robbing a bank during the chaos than on the business of being attacked and fighting back.
Zhimou does big-scale battles brilliantly – and the monsters here, who conveniently can be stopped by taking out their well-protected queen, are well-designed (aside from those eyes), fearsome and swarm impressively over walls, up towers and round in circles against fabulous, CGI-assisted Chinese cityscapes. And we get fun with arrows, scythes, spears, catapults, hot-air balloons (with an appalling casualty rate) and the like – all of which tends to present huge numbers of colour-coded Chinese troops as cogs in a vast war machine. Andy Lau gets prominent billing as Strategist Wing, but only makes an impression because as one of the few characters who conveniently speaks English – and it’s notable that the Western characters get to be self-serving but also shaded while all the Chinese are virtuous, self-sacrificing stick figures.
It fits into a sub-genre of science fiction most notably featured in Doctor Who, as aliens invade Earth in picturesque historical periods – which has had a spotty track record in the movies, as the sprightly, modest Outlander and the bloated, pompous Cowboys & Aliens both underwhelmed at the box office. Baseline enjoyable, if only for the huge resources marshalled in the service of a tiny plot.