Genre: Fantasy, Action Director: Yimou Zhang Starring: Matt Damon, Jing Tian, Pedro Pascal, Willem Defoe (?!)
I ask this with the utmost seriousness; with all of Chinese mythology to draw upon – and there are some Fascinating legends which you can learn about – why, when you create your own Chinese high profile film in collaboration with an American studio, are there no dragons?! And not the four legged or wyvern variety but the awesome snake-like ones that you see a lot in their myths. Come on, be creative! Why do the monsters here have to be these four legged lizard things?
So yeah beyond that and a few other issues, I actually thought this film was okay. Not great my any means, but it’s certainly not an awful film. There’s certainly enough here to enjoy as a standard action film with some cool design elements. Allow me to elaborate.
The Great Wall is a film that takes place along (Plot Twist!) The Great Wall of China. The film makes it pretty clear at the start that this is a legend rather than told as history. Though it may not seem like much, I do appreciate them making that distinction.
So, along the Great Wall is a force of Chinese warriors called the Nameless Order, sworn to defend their country against an invasion of Tao Tei (aliens or daemons.. it’s not very clear) that has been happening in secret for centuries. One day, a group of travellers from Europe arrive to supposedly trade with the Chinese. Among them is William (Matt Damon) and Tovar (Pedro Pascal) who get drawn in to this conflict between humanity and monsters. And meeting warriors such as Commander Lin (Jing Tian) they start to think that this is a war they could believe in. Also Willem Defoe is in it for some reason.
When the film was first promoted, with a trailer prominently featuring Damon and Pascal, many people – myself included – began to think that this would be yet another ‘White Saviour’ film in which an outsider from America, or another Western land, meet the ‘primitive’ culture and end up saving them all while learning their ways. We’ve been here before with the likes of Dances with Wolves, The Last Samurai and Avatar. It’s something which I dislike for the fact that it seemed like it was so the big film companies could include famous American stars in films which they would potentially not fit for the sake of star power.
In the case of The Great Wall, it seems like the ones involved in the project were aware of that and used it as an opportunity to introduce Chinese film making to the big screens in western audiences. This seems like more noble intentions if this is true, but I don’t feel that I could really comment on this in any extensive detail. If you want to read up more or watch more videos about this topic, there are better people than I discussing this. I myself recommend Moviebob’s video ‘The Great Wail’.
So with these casting decisions in mind, one would think that Damon would play the role of ‘White Saviour’. Surprisingly this doesn’t come across as much in comparison to other films. While there’s certainly an element of it in The Great Wall, Damon is mostly in awe of the highly organised and devoted Nameless Order, who are a sight to behold in their action scenes by the way. I feel that Commander Lin is the true star of this film, as she is an awesome character with great action, a serious attitude, but not so serious that she can’t see the big picture. These foreigners to her are more of a curiosity that potentially has use rather than love interests or any other caricatures that you’d expect.
And if the goal here was to demonstrate the superiority of these warriors and how great they are compared to the ‘barbarians’ of the west then I’d say mission accomplished. The Nameless Order is clearly an advanced army with experience and trust on their side, and that is shown constantly throughout the film. Not that William and Tovar aren’t skilled themselves of course, (use of archery and matador training come into this a lot) it’s just viewers will have come to see awesome action against hordes of monsters.
I mentioned those monsters at the start; the idea behind the Tao Tei is that they’re a constantly evolving force of monsters that seek to devour everything in their path. But that’s where my biggest criticism comes in; if they are evolving, why don’t they evolve things like wings or venomous fangs, or any other useful things for a battle. (Please consult the Tyranids from Warhammer 40,000 or the Kaiju from Pacific Rim to see what I mean)
There was creativity involved with the set design of the Wall, how the soldiers functioned and their costuming (essentially different colours for different unit types) so I don’t see why that can’t apply to their adversaries. It would certainly have made for better viewing. So while I’m impressed with the design, as I said, I can’t say much for the CGI or the monsters. There’s just not enough variety there compared to the Order.
Though there is plenty to be said for the apparent need for Matt Damon in order to promote this Chinese-American film, that isn’t my main problem with the film. I feel that I would have liked this film a lot more if it decided to do more crazy and weird things. It seems like they were holding back for some reason, when they didn’t really need to.
The Great Wall, for all it’s flaws, could have been a much better film if it had more to show. My hope is that the director of this film and those involved (I’m certainly keeping an eye on Jing Tian now thanks to this) will have something much better in the future. Because this was a good idea at heart, and I do think it was done out of a desire to create a good film.
It’s better than Outcast anyway, so that’s something.