Snarling digital monsters, a glowering Matt Damon and battalions of unfaltering Chinese warriors mix it up in “The Great Wall,” a painless, overstuffed spectacle that works overtime as a testament to China’s might. Set once upon a time, the movie spins a legend that never was: Every 60 years, slavering creatures emerge from beyond to sharpen their teeth on human bones and stuff their bellies on meat. The whole thing plays out as if it had been thought up by someone who, while watching “Game of Thrones” and smoking a bowl, started riffing on walls, China and production money.
The threadbare story turns on a swaggering mercenary, William (Mr. Damon), who’s trying to find what he calls “black powder,” a.k.a. gunpowder. He and a sidekick, Pero (Pedro Pascal, from “Game of Thrones”), end up at the Great Wall, where after some macho posturing and chest thumping, they join forces with the wall’s guardians, including an English-speaking military genius, Lin Mae (Jing Tian); an adviser, Wang (Andy Lau); and an assortment of supporting glowerers (Hanyu Zhang, Eddie Peng Yu-Yen and Ling Gengxin). Willem Dafoe, the whites of his eyes shining, is there, too, slinking around as Ballard, a Western prisoner who long ago also sought the black powder.
That’s about it, plus striking locations (the Rainbow Mountains), digital wizardry and battles between hordes of critters (called Tao Tei) and legions of soldiers. These are distinguished by skill and hue, like the blue-clad Crane Corp, who bungee-jump off the wall with spears. Outside of the bromantic quipping between William and Pero, the dialogue is aggressively simple (no frills, no poetry) and skews along the lines of “Release the Kraken” or, in this case, bring out the flaming balls of death and so forth. This seems to suit the director, Zhang Yimou (“Hero”), who lavishes much of his attention on the wall, which amusingly suggests a giant Swiss Army knife, scissors included.
Mr. Damon, wearing hair extensions and employing an on-and-off Irish accent, looks uncharacteristically ill at ease during much of this. He may be the headliner, but he’s also just one of this movie’s many, many whirring parts. “The Great Wall” flirts with romance and bleats out a little propagandistic blather about the benefits of bilateral action, but the focus throughout remains on multitudes of shifting, surging bodies — human and beast, digital and not — that, as they ebb and flow, resemble a Chinese military pageant and a lavish Busby Berkeley number. At times the effect brings to mind the German theorist Siegfried Kracauer’s ideas about Berkeley-like revues or, as he wrote in 1927, “indissoluble girl clusters whose movements are demonstrations of mathematics.”
In such formations, bodies are abstracted into larger geometric shapes and people transform into a collective mass ornament. This transformation obviously takes on sinister meaning when such formations are adapted for, say, Nazi propaganda, as demonstrated in the film “ Triumph of the Will.”
In “The Great Wall,” though, the bodies are divided into two distinct, oppositional configurations: the raw and the cooked. On the one side are the monsters that — despite being nicely designed zeros and ones — suggest a wildness that cannot be denied. On the other are the meticulously choreographed warriors, who never seem less human than when joined together.