'The Great Wall' Isn't So Great
It’s no secret that China is an up-and-coming global superpower (if not one already), and in the world of movies its presence is just as tangible. No studio working today would dare make a mega blockbuster without China’s money in mind. With “The Great Wall,” American audiences now get to see what it’s like when a studio makes a blockbuster with China in mind first, and Western audiences second.
Directed by the amazing Zhang Yimou, “The Great Wall” tells the story of a pair of vaguely western mercenaries (Matt Damon and Pedro Pascal) who attempt to steal the secret of black powder from the East. After being captured, they get embroiled in the centuries-long siege at the Great Wall, which was built to hold back a never-ending horde of reptilian alien monster creatures.
All things considered, “The Great Wall” is a pretty mediocre action and monster film. The monsters, called the Tao Tei, are rendered with fairly low fidelity CGI and their non-humanoid shape doesn’t allow them to get into the kind of cool hand-to-hand combat that’s usually expected of Chinese action films.
Watching the soldiers fight is sufficient, if only because they’re straight out of an anime, right down to the color-coded groups that comprise it ranks. There’s the red Eagle archers, the black Bear foot soldiers, the orange Tiger siege troops, purple Deer Calvary and the all-female Crane troops who fight with lances and bungee cords. It’s neat watching all of these Chinese soldiers perform their duties fighting the Tao Tei, and therein we find the actual reason for this otherwise unremarkable movie.
Similar to how the early “Transformers” movies tend to espouse the virtues of the American military, “The Great Wall” espouses the virtues of working together and self-sacrifice, not in the way, say, the Avengers come together to work as a team, though. The film goes to great lengths to say how individual gain and greed are bad, right down to being the reason the Tao Tei exist and the qualities Matt Damon eventually turns his back on as he becomes the hero.
Yet, the most glorious shots and sequences in the movie are when dozens and dozens of same-dressed and color-coded Chinese soldiers are working in lockstep with clockwork precision. The subtle fingers of China’s State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film and Television (SAPPRFT) are at work in this film.
“The Great Wall” is by no means a work of blatant propaganda, but it can see the word from where it’s standing. Matt Damon may be on all of the posters, but he’s barely the hero. That title would go to Jing Tian’s Line Mae, commander of the all-female Crane troop. It’s her decisions and narrative that drives most of the movie, and Damon is mostly there to serve as the audience’s translator and point of view.
If Damon is supposed to be the audience’s surrogate in the fantastic Chinese setting, then the film is also saying that we should be amazed by everything Chinese–that’s roughly 50 percent of what Damon does in the movie. There are multiple times where he and Pedro Pascal are dumbstruck by the science and technology of the Chinese, and by their glorious teamwork and dedication. It’s obviously there, but it’s also hidden just well enough beneath the more general and universal heroic virtues of working together and unselfishness.
While “The Great Wall” does its best to wrap-up its subtly Chinese nationalistic themes under an action movie veneer, it can’t quite hide all of its intentions, mainly because the action is just not as good as it could be. It’s not a bad movie, it’s just kind of forgettable. As a moment in film and global media culture? Maybe it’s something more.