*Warning: Potential Spoilers*
Ever since The Great Wall was announced in its first trailer, one question has been circling the film like a dark storm cloud: can Hollywood make a good, accurate, and respectful film about the Chinese culture? Or, more importantly, should they? Is Hollywood capable of respecting the traditions and history of another culture and put them into a film accurately? When it was revealed that Matt Damon would play the main character, most people said no, Hollywood was just whitewashing another culture and the film would be a mockery of the culture it was meant to portray. Never mind that it is director Yimou Zhang’s first film in almost all English, or that it is still primarily a Chinese film (the most expensive Chinese film ever made to date), and filmed mostly in China. To me, the story being told in The Great Wall takes a backseat to the culture. Yes, Matt Damon is white, but the majority of the cast members fighting alongside him (many getting more interesting screen time than him) are Chinese, and what the audience sees on the screen and hears in the score is so much grander than the story being told. That is where the essence of The Great Wall lies, and that is where the culture takes the reins.
When they are two days north of the Great Wall of China, mercenaries William Garin (Matt Damon) and Pero Tovar (Pedro Pascal) are attacked by a mysterious monster in the night. They attempt to seek refuge at the Great Wall and are immediately taken into custody by the elite battle force called the Nameless Order, headed by General Shao (Hanya Zhang), Crane Commander Lin Mei (Tian Jing), and Strategist Wang (Andy Lau). Though Lin Mei is initially suspicious of their motives (and rightly so, as these mercenaries are seeking the fabled explosive black powder that Nameless Order uses in their weaponry), there is no time to interrogate them further, as the monsters that attacked the night before are back in greater numbers. Garin and Tovar eventually join in the battle, and are rewarded with the knowledge that the Great Wall was created in order to keep these monsters, named the Taotie, in the wastelands beyond, since they multiply when they eat. They also meet Ballard (William Dafoe, and those are the only two white guys in this movie, for everyone’s reference), a man who once snuck in with a group to steal the black powder and was caught, revealing that the Nameless Order is determined to protect the secret of the Taotie at all costs. Garin is then faced with a choice – complete his goal as a mercenary and escape with the powder, or assist the Nameless Order in protecting the world from the dangerous Taotie.
As I said earlier, the plot gets a very minimal treatment in this film. Characters are introduced, but most of them are not given a chance to become anything special, or even two-dimensional – you will get hints at backstories that are barely discussed, or you will struggle at even putting a name to a face. Damon’s character bonds with a younger warrior named Peng Yong (Lu Han), but honestly I only know his name because I have access to IMDb. He’s adorable and his storyline in the film turns out very nicely, but it’s kept to such a minimum you will always be wondering if they already said his name and you missed it or if he just doesn’t have a name (I mean maybe you only get to use your name when you’re a commander like Lin Mei?). It goes the same way for everyone – you get hints about Tovar and Garin’s less than stellar pasts, about Mei’s life with the Nameless Order, even about the origin of the Taotie, but that’s not what you’re supposed to focus on. Really Damon and Pascal are just there t0 marvel at how pretty everything looks and how amazing the technology on this wall is, just like the rest of us, not to move the story forward (at least not well).
So what’s driving the movie on then? That would be cultural aspect of it all – the color, the music, the nature of mystery and intrigue you have for this culture that is not your own. The fantasy of China that’s being presented to you proves their might – very on the nose, of course, but no more than America likes to do it – and it is a great show that’s being put on. The different colors of the sections of the Nameless Order make for a great visual showing of battle and before the explosions start it is a great way to spice up the heat of this imaginary brawl, especially when you have little to no real stake in the outcome. Sure, you still have no idea what the yellow and purple troops do, but man do they look cool walking up and down in sync with each other. Not only are they unlike any army you’ve ever seen before, they are the perfect mix of fantasy and realistic culture, mixed perfectly for a visually spectacular war (at least on the side of the victors, since the aliens are a dime-a-dozen CGI enemy to defeat). Then, when the explosions and battle techniques and weaponry come in, you are blown away by the ingenuity of what you are seeing before you, even if nothing in the rest of the story matters to you at all. Couple that with the musical cues of the drums to give a very fantastical and oriental atmosphere, all thanks to Ramin Djawadi, the composer who has continuously shown his talent on Game of Thrones with a knack for making music seem both foreign and magical all at once.
This is not a film that will rock you to your core because it says something amazing about ethnicity or culture – that is something you will take away outside of the story. It also isn’t even a fantastic blockbuster film, since its story is driven mainly by the style of its people and not by the actual tale they tell. Does that mean it is not interesting at all? Of course not. You just have to realize that, walking into it, you are seeing a ridiculous, maybe even laughable film, and not just because Damon and Pascal are kind of funny. I do believe, as Yimou said in response to the “White Savior” controversy, that the Chinese culture is a major part of this film, and that is something worth watching. Damon has not come to save this culture, but to marvel at it, just as we Americans do, and there is no reason not to be amazed by the spectacle we are being presented with. Hopefully it will be a stepping stone to a better blend of culture and story, as well as a greater collaboration between the powerhouses of China and America.
3.5 / 5
I will say this, for once, Matt Damon didn’t get lost somewhere. He is always exactly where he intended to be, even if he’s not doing much while he’s there.