Feb 4, 2019
The Great Wall (2016)
Anyone who follows the movie business nowadays is starkly aware that the Chinese box office now accounts for a disproportionate share of Hollywood blockbuster profits. This is why audiences of late have seen unprecedented levels of pandering to China in American movies, with Chinese actors conspicuously inserted into tentpole films like Rogue One, Terminator: Genisys, The Meg, Warcraft, and Kong: Skull Island, to name but a few recent examples.
Those last two have something else in common; both Warcraft and Kong were co-produced by Legendary Pictures following its acquisition by a Chinese conglomerate. The same studio then went on to co-produce 2016’s The Great Wall, presumably under the assumption that if awkwardly shoehorning Chinese characters into American franchises was a (partial) key to success, then a big-budget film with a nearly all-Chinese cast and an A-list Hollywood movie star (like, say, Matt Damon) awkwardly shoehorned in would be a can’t-lose proposition.
Unfortunately, the resulting film is exactly what you’d expect given its rather commerce-minded origins: a bland, dumbed-down tale that’s little more than an excuse to showcase CGI battles, in this case against mindless monsters from outer space.
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After an opening crawl that presents facts about the Great Wall of China and explains that the story we’re about to see is but one of many “legends” about the structure, we journey to sometime in the first millennium AD and meet William (Damon, speaking with a barely detectable Scottish burr) and his Spanish compadre Tovar (Pedro Pascal), who are among a group of European mercenaries traveling to China in search of the elusive and explosive “black powder”. One night, their traveling party is attacked by a creature that leaves only William and Tovar alive. William is able to fend off the beast and chop off its arm, which in the light of day is revealed to be a green, unearthly claw. They make their way to the Great Wall, where they’re captured by soldiers belonging to the creatively christened Nameless Order.
The soldiers find the monster arm in William’s possession, which leads to the two men being interrogated by General Shao (Zhang Hanyu) and Strategist Wang (Andy Lau), along with Commander Mae Lin (Jing Tian, also seen in Kong: Skull Island), a young, attractive woman who happens to speak perfect English, obviously preordaining her to be William’s love interest.
The two men are taken prisoner, where they also meet Ballard (Willem Dafoe), another man of vague European origins who also came looking for the black powder 25 years ago, and has been held captive ever since. Ballard is the one who taught Commander Lin to speak English, but beyond that, he has little purpose in this story beyond providing another recognizable name for American audiences.
Before long, the Wall is under siege by more of the creatures, who turn out to be giant lizard-like carnivores led by an even larger “queen” that communicates to her minions via vibrations of her antennae. A horde of thousands bear down on the Wall, and the Nameless Order breaks into color-coded factions to fend them off: while I didn’t catch what the purple, black, and yellow teams are responsible for exactly, the red team shoots arrows at the creatures, while the blue team (the all-female faction, led by Commander Lin) perform rope acrobatics as they swoop down to spear the beasts.
When one of the creatures makes it to the top of the Wall, William frees himself and shows that the beast can be easily killed by shooting arrows into its eyes (which are oddly placed on its shoulders). And for some reason, the murder of a single drone causes the queen to wiggle her feelers so as to immediately call off the attack.
Having proven himself a brave warrior, William is allowed the courtesy of a shave and a haircut, and is then finally told the full story: the creatures belong to a race known as the Tao Tieh (a name drawn from ancient Chinese mythology), who hitched a ride to earth on a meteor centuries ago, and who now rise up every 60 years to attack the emperor. But William happens to have a large magnetized rock among his possessions, which Strategist Wang has previously theorized might be the key to defeating the aliens.
A surprise attack by the Tao Tieh leaves General Shao mortally wounded, and with his dying breaths he makes Commander Lin the new general. Her first order of business is to capture one of the Tao Tieh alive to test the magnet hypothesis, and it works like a charm: the captured alien immediately becomes docile when exposed to the magnet, and is quickly shipped off to the capital city to become a plaything of the boy emperor.
Meanwhile, Tovar and Ballard find loads of black powder hidden within the walls of the… Wall, and they decide to grab as much as they can and flee. But William refuses to abscond with them, saying that he’s tired of fighting for no one and nothing, and he’s going to stay and stand with the Nameless Order and help defend against the onslaught.
His decision couldn’t come at a better time, because the soldiers discover the Tao Tieh have secretly burrowed a tunnel underneath the Great Wall, and the horde is now well on their way to the capital city. And the captured beast in the capital gets accidentally woken up, allowing him to use his antennae to steer the queen and all his fellow drones in the right direction.
The Nameless Ones have but one chance to catch up with the Tao Tieh and save the emperor: by hopping on rudimentary hot air balloons that have a tendency to spontaneously burst into flame. But both William and General Lin take the risk and float to the capital, where they formulate a plan to strap explosives to the captured creature and release it to get closer to the queen, at which time William fires his arrows, blowing up the queen and saving the city.
William is hailed as a hero by the Nameless Order, but he can’t stick around because his planet really needs him or something. So he leaves the Great Wall and his new girlfriend in the rearview as he rides off into the sunset.
There’s not much to delve into here. If brave soldiers fighting generic alien monsters without any deeper meaning is your thing, then by all means see The Great Wall post-haste. The plot is simple, and the dialogue even simpler; all the better to be translated into both English and Chinese without losing anything of importance. But to its credit, the film resists the cliché of having all its Chinese characters use accented English, and instead has them speak in Chinese with subtitles—though these prove to be superfluous when Tian Jing spends most of the film translating everything for Damon’s benefit.
When The Great Wall was first announced, it was widely decried as yet another instance of the “white savior” trope where a westerner journeys to the far east to the become an Asian society’s Chosen One. Those fears were somewhat allayed when critics learned that acclaimed Chinese director Yimou Zhang (Hero, House of Flying Daggers) was at the helm, but yet, it’s hard to call this movie anything but another white savior film: After all, William is the one who defeats the alien queen once and for all, a goal which none of the Nameless Order was able to accomplish for centuries prior to his arrival.
Also, while William has an obvious story arc where he goes from a greedy mercenary to a noble warrior, none of the Chinese soldiers fighting beside him are allowed to distinguish themselves similarly. And all of the men that do show glimmers of personality (including one timid soldier who was apparently the Gomer Pyle of ancient China) ultimately sacrifice themselves to better serve the glory of Matt Damon.
Some compared the premise of this film to The Last Samurai, another movie scorned for the “white savior in Asia” trope—in that case, Tom Cruise embracing the Samurai lifestyle in 19th century Japan. And would you believe that the script for The Great Wall is partially credited to Edward Zwick and Marshall Herskovitz, the same two guys who wrote the screenplay for Last Samurai? It seems the producers were not only well aware of the White Savior Trope, but were leaning into it, and thus really wanted to get the guys who were the best at it.
It’s an inoffensive film, and far from the dullest you’ll see. It’s just uninspired and filled to the brim with action movie clichés, which may be why the film ended up underperforming at the box office in both the United States and China.
Yes, it seems viewers saw through this transparent attempt to pander to both nations and stayed away. Although, that might be an optimistic take on this movie’s failure. More likely, the dismal performance of The Great Wall is due to it being an “original” story not based on existing franchise or intellectual property; Certainly, that will be the lesson the studios take away from this. So we can all look forward to less US/China co-productions like this one in the future, and more American action franchises relaunched with Chinese actors lurking in the background.