Whenever possible, you should go into a film with as little bias as possible. It’s unfair to go into a film with a firm idea of the film before you’ve seen it. We had that dog abuse allegation for A Dog’s Purpose earlier in the year, and we had the whitewashing controversy for The Great Wall. You have to give the film a chance and watch it with an open mind so you can draw your own conclusions. The difference between A Dog’s Purpose and The Great Wall is the dog abuse ended up being false.
It’s not uncommon to have a disconnect between intention and execution. Even if a film comes off with a certain tone or a confused plot, a closer examination of what led to that will reveal the film’s true intention. Taking a closer look into the story and screenwriting team behind The Great Wall will show you the cracks in the foundation that stems from past films like Prince of Persia and The Last Samurai. Like many unsuccessful films about establishing a ridiculous alternative history that came before it, The Great Wall stand in the not-so-great leagues of films like the ones I named earlier, but especially the most recent disaster, Gods of Egypt. You could almost admire such obstinance for inserting a white savior into every film if it weren’t so fundamentally disgusting. No matter how set in fantasy or unintelligible the reasoning behind having such a character even present may seem right, it will always be irrevocably wrong.
The Great Wall has more issues than just a white savior because it spends the entire trying to convince the audience that it is not at all racist. Why? Because it has a lot of Asian actors in it of course. Unfortunately, any intelligent person can see through the “I have a [insert race here] friend so I can’t be racist” defense. The story ultimately suffers and turns into little more than a convoluted mess with gaps so big it should be renamed The Big Hole. The mythology presented is never fully explored, and the origin of the creatures (whether foreign, domestic or Ninja Turtle-esque in origin) remains a mystery well past the end of the film. The character’s motivations are only ever explored on a very basic surface level so they never move past one-dimensional even the film is in 3D.
The narrative wasn’t the only thing that felt hijacked in this film. Acclaimed writer/director Yimou Zhang has created some of the most beautiful and provocative foreign films about Chinese folk tales. Films like Hero, House of Flying Daggers and Curse of the Golden Flower are each prime examples of his visual style and storytelling. The Great Wall doesn’t even come close to reaching their ranks and is arguably his worst film to date. The film feels so far removed from the Zhang I have grown up respecting that it feels like it is less his film and more the product of heavy Hollywood studio influencing. A well-developed Zhang film is one of the few things that can get me excited for the use of 3D, but the only noticeable aspects that come close to feeling like they were influenced by the director are the color palette, the choreography, and the costume design. Everything else just comes off as a typical, American blockbuster that screams “Look at me!” instead of Zhang’s previous works, which are all about experiencing the film.
If you’re expecting Matt Damon to be the savior (not just the white one) of this film, you’ll soon discover that it is beyond saving. It becomes clearer that despite good performances from actors like Tian Jing and Andy Lau, they are merely there to play characters that help propel Damon’s character into the spotlight with either partnership or forced sacrifices. Even his companion, played by Pedro Pascal, is meant to be nothing more than comedic relief, and whose Spanish origins are exploited just so he can play matador with a monster. Willem Dafoe is also in this film, but his character is so poorly explored and utilized that he may as well be replaced with a terracotta sculpture and the film would be all the better for it.
Damon’s interesting choice of accent aside, he delivers a competent performance, yet again playing a hero like the many he’s built his career on. His character comes in full of bravado and happens to be better at dealing with the problems on the Chinese wall than the people who have spent a few millennia defending it, and training all their lives to fight the creatures. Now if only it didn’t come off as condescending…
The Great Wall tries to symbolize the solidity of the wall it was based on. It’s shaky moral foundation and shotty, American-influenced craftsmanship will ultimately make it go the way of the Berlin Wall. It will be torn apart and used as a historical anecdote so that we hopefully don’t make these kinds of mistakes again in the future.