Film Review – The Great Wall
The Great Wall
Arrows flying, 4 legged CGI monsters, gleaming well-polished primary colored armor, more arrows, horses, more CGI, still more arrows, beards, intense staring, Taiko drums, yet still more slow-motion arrows…
Perhaps China’s most famous structure was built and used for various purposes over hundreds of years. In reality it had to do with either defense in wars mostly against the Mongols. In other words, a very terrestrial reason. However, in the new film The Great Wall, they claim that there were legendary reasons for the wall as well and that they aim to tell one of the legends.
Matt Damon stars as William, a mercenary who has fought in countless battles all over the world for pay. His compatriate Tovar (Pedro Pascal of Game of Thrones fame) is his even more cynical brother in arms, though likely even more motivated by money. They are in Asia of the feudal era in search of fabled black powder. Explosive powder would sell for a fortune back home. While dodging local authorities that are trying to run them down, they run smack into the titular wall. It is manned by a vast army who quickly takes them into custody. However, the army is preparing for an oncoming battle. But the battle isn’t with some Mongolian horde. Instead they are attacked by some ancient creatures that come out of hiding once every 60 years known as the Taotie. These monsters have mouths full of fangs, massive strength and climbing abilities, and communicate via vibrations of various membranes on their bodies. Imagine the demon dogs from Ghostbusters with less of a head and more teeth and you get pretty close to what these look like.
Tian Ting plays the commander of the female group that performs aerial attacks by precariously dangling from bungie like cables over the wall. Hanyu Zhang plays the General in charge of the entire army. The renowned Andy Lau plays the army’s chief strategist. Damon’s character earns all of their trust during the first battle by successfully driving back some of the vicious creatures with some almost supernatural archery.
So of course some familiar tropes get brought out again. Will the mercenaries get past their selfish drive for money to help this besieged army in their noble defense of China? Will the handsome white man chastely flirting with the strong and beautiful commander actually amount to anything? Will the Taotie be defeated? We’ve seen all of these story beats before.
Starting with the good stuff here, some of the musical score is terrific. Composer Ramin Djawadi, while borrowing some similar motifs he uses on Game of Thrones, does a yeoman’s job of incorporating the signal drums the warriors use into the score itself. Also, the costume design is really exciting. The archers are outfitted in a blood red armor, the aerialists dance in a deep shiny blue, and all together the armies are an idealized fantasy version of Chinese uniforms of yore.
Finally, there are certain sequences that are dazzling. Late in the film our heroes are working their way through a tower that is entirely stained glass. With multicolored sunlight streaming in all directions during a battle it is quite pretty. Other visual touches occur as well. At one point lanterns of mourning fill the sky in what may be the movie’s only quiet moment. And the creature designs are fun.
The big drawbacks are the script and the special effects. As far as story and characterization goes, there isn’t much ofeither. The whole film is pretty much one long battle. Especially when it comes to the army, we don’t get to know who these warriors are before they start fighting and dying. So it gets hard to care about their fate with so little investment in who they are. You watch saying “Oh, there’s the young nervous one. I hope he doesn’t get killed. Oh, there’s the acrobatic leader of the bungie jumping ladies. She kicks butt.” This might all be more forgivable if the spectacle was more spectacular. But this thing is like 90% CGI. The first big mistake is during the opening prologue they do a long tracking shot of the wall that is so computer graphicy I was confused if it was just supposed to be a simulation or if it was meant to be the actual wall. When the film starts in earnest the structure looks better. But it still looks like one giant video game, complete with respawning of characters, different levels, and a couple of boss battles. It’s not surprising that Max Brooks of World War Z fame gets a partial story credit. A lot of this looked like the film of World War Z with waves of creatures climbing up battlements in a giant mass and overrunning the humans inside. As with a lot of overly CGI work physics are often ignored in how things move. There’s a reason that the likes of Christopher Nolan and J.J. Abrams have insisted on practical effects in some of their big budget productions. It gives their stunts and effects more weight. Here the jeopardy is more pretty to look at than it is to get invested in.
Director Yimou Zhang has created some of the greatest Chinese cinema of the last 20 years. Ju Dou and Raise The Red Lantern really put him on the international map. House of Flying Daggers is probably the closest to this film that he’s done before. Hero is one of my personal favorites. But especially those films, when there is action, even if it defies reality with wire-fu and outrageous martial arts, they showed actors in physical space that had a balletic beauty to them.
Some of that work is on display in The Great Wall, but it is so overshadowed by video gameish visual noise that it detracts from it. Given this director’s track record this movie is a bit of a disappointment. Also, it would be important to address the issue of whitewashing that has arisen surrounding this film. Most famously, Constance Wu from the TV show Fresh Off The Boat called this movie out last year for casting the distinctly Caucasian Matt Damon in the lead role set in Chinese history. The filmmakers countered with the notion that they always intended for the story to star a Westerner and he wasn’t replacing what would normally be an Asian role. But the controversy was also touching on a larger issue of representation in mainstream films and the dearth of roles for Chinese actors. I won’t presume to either strongly take sides on this issue or to try to “white-splain” away this even being a problem. The issue of minorities getting more starring roles is a real one. I think that maybe one of the issues last year was the ad campaign for this movie sold it as historical epic about actual battles. But the fact that this is largely a fantasy film which cribs from the likes of Lord of the Rings and Game of Thrones, not a searing portrayal of Chinese history. So accuracy isn’t really on anyone’s mind here. That’s not an excuse for the lack of minority opportunity. After all, The Great Wall features another in a long run of a white Western male protagonist exploring an “exotic” foreign culture. And we certainly have had our fill of that trope. It’s just feels like it might mitigate some of the hurt feelings here by knowing that this isn’t an example of out and out replacing a Chinese character. It feels like social justice might be found with a more worthy target.
The Great Wall is an entertaining enough film. There is some fun eye candy, the score is worthy, and it has a lot of action. But both this director and these actors have done better.