I walked into a screening of The Great Wall hoping for the best. I really did. I wanted to write an incisive, thought-provoking piece about the complexities of the production, and really dig deep into the film’s heart and soul despite the negativity surrounding its accused “whitewashing” of its lead role. How bad could a movie dubbed a “historical fantasy” set around China’s most iconic structure be? The answer: Really, really, REALLY bad (times infinity).
As soon as picture rolled, I knew I was in for something so much worse than racially insensitive casting. And somewhere between the “screaming arrows” and “black powder weapons,” in the milieu of the slobbering lizards known as the Tao Tei and the bungee-jumping “crane corpse alliance,” I left The Great Wall and never looked back. I’ve never walked out of a film and my departure was also in part due to the suspicious activity of the gentlemen to my right who may have been enjoying something more than just a movie. Just like this gross theatergoer, the filmmakers obviously did not give a Tao Tei’s ass about me, the audience member, theater patron and ticket buyer. Why should I care about them and this so-called movie?
Before you tell me that it’s my job as a critic to sit there and suffer in silence while an epic monstrosity of a failure unfolds onscreen (and while a disturbing gentleman ogles at Asians and monsters), let me tell you what I do know: The film is truly as bad as you think it is and more. It is a senseless task to try and make sense of a film that doesn’t make a lick of sense at all. William (Matt Damon) and Tovar (Pedro Pascal) somehow outrun a bunch of bad guys who killed all their friends. Then they accidentally stumble upon The Great Wall, lined with an army of Chinese soldiers. We’re supposed to believe that during the course of their entire journey, these two geniuses never noticed the 5,500-mile long wall, oh, you know, right there.
William and Tovar are then questioned about their activities by Commander Lin (Tian Jing). It’s a legitimate question to ask what these two white dudes are doing in ancient China. (Looking for black powder, we later learn.) Surrounded by the Nameless Order, a military command featuring soldiers dressed like the Power Rangers, William proves their worth by revealing the severed Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle-like green arm of an alien creature he killed near the wall. The authenticity of his souvenir is confirmed by Strategist Wang – the only cool guy here, played by cool Hong Kong star Andy Lau. The white guys aren’t so bad after all, but now they know the big secret beyond the wall: aliens exist. They are kept captive up until they are needed in the next scene, when a battle with the aliens begins.
The Nameless Order has been waiting for this battle for sixty years, but for whatever reason, William’s act of killing moved it up nine days earlier. Not only does the army seem unprepared for a battle they’ve been preparing six decades for, no one seems to be too mad at the fact that this random white dude just set off the greatest war they’ve ever faced like it’s no big deal. The story becomes more preposterous from then on, with lines upon lines of exposition trying to explain the unexplainable. In a military meeting, the creepy Ballard (Willem Dafoe) literally translates the Chinese soldiers’ words for William (and the audience – even though there are subtitles). It’s distracting and unnecessary but proves there are two movies at play here – the Nameless Order versus the monsters, and William and Tovar’s buddy soldier flick. Neither film works, though I’d much rather see the Nameless Order’s version of events.
The issue here isn’t that high fantasy stories don’t work – they absolutely do, as we’ve seen in Lord of the Rings. The issue is that this kind of work takes an incredible amount of world building and strong character development. The script was written by six white guys – whose combination of credits include the Bourne films, Prince of Persia, and The Last Samurai – which explains the abundance of white privilege and lack of everything else. This epic fantasy may involve monsters but, like the posters suggest, it’s a story of white male privilege and how far it can get you, even in a land that is not your own.
When viewed through this lens, the casting of Matt Damon makes complete sense. He is the face of whitesplaining, as evidenced on the last season of HBO’s Project Greenlight. In the show, Damon condescendingly explained to black producer Effie Brown (whose credits include Dear White People, the irony) that diversity matters only in “the casting of the film, not in the casting of the show.” This is textbook whitesplaining. And it’s what William spends most of his time doing, along with acting as white savior hero for far more credentialed, highly competent and not to mention Chinese-fluent candidates ready to take on the task. (Damon shot the film and HBO show around the same time, so perhaps there was some inspiration there.)
If there is any silver lining here, it’s Andy Lau as Strategist Wang (he needs a prequel stat) and Tian Jing as a feminist bad ass who leads her “crane corps alliance” of women warriors. I would have stayed for that but once those women dove into battle via bungee cord, I realized the director Zhang Yimou had lost it. This film does not compare to his previous credits, which include colorful epics House of Flying Daggers, Hero, and Raise the Red Lantern. The film reeks of too much CG and poorly composed monsters. It’s a sampler platter of different movies and television shows: Alien. Game of Thrones. Warcraft. Pretty sure I heard the tune “Bali Ha’i” from South Pacific. Yimou spread himself too thin on his first English-language feature, making a monstrous assemblage instead of a movie.
Maybe I’m not strong enough to sit through this kind of epic fail. Maybe the “whitewashing” issue hit too close to home. Whatever the reason, this was my piece about it and I know there are far braver critics out there who will have other things to say. There was a lot of big money behind this picture, and perhaps it will find some sort of audience, though it didn’t do great in China (grossing $170 million on a reported $150 million budget) and it fared even worse in the U.S. ($21.5 million gross as of this writing). Regardless of what happens to the film, I can only hope for three things: that Damon takes a diversity training course, Yimou finds a better movie to make and we get the Strategist Wang prequel we deserve.