Today I went with two friends to see The Great Wall, in 3D, for 110% ironic purposes. And we would have seen it in IMAX if the show time was earlier. All I can say is that it is really a bizarre experience.
First, let’s talk about the context. The movie is directed entirely in China, by a Chinese director, released in China first, and features a cast almost entirely made of Chinese actors. And it’s completely in English. I just…it’s mind-boggling. More on that later
That being said, let’s talk about the plot. Basically, it’s Song Dynasty China(ha but really no one care, because next to nothing in the film would ever give you the impression that it was) and Matt Damon and his Spanish buddy are traveling with some other mercenaries to China to find “black powder.” They get attacked by a strange creature that kills their other companions, leaving just Matt and Spanish guy before they manage to chase it off by slicing off a foot. They continue on their journey, unloading some stuff to move faster than bandits, but bringing the foot and a magnetic rock that…they were carrying all this time? Just a plain old magnetic rock, just like any other you might find in the world. Yep. How did they get it? Who knows. Is it important to the plot later on? You bet. They get chased by bandits the next day and end up at the Great Wall of China where they are captured instead by Chinese soldiers. Their butts are saved however, when the soldiers discover that they’ve killed this monster(thanks earlier action scene, for making that abundantly, undeniably clear), which turns out to be a lizard monster that’s been terrorizing the wall hordes.
Exposition! How did these monsters come to be? Several centuries ago, a greedy emperor disturbed them or something with his aggressive search for gold. Now they appear every sixty years to feed on things and feed their queen. What are the stakes? If they get past the Wall, they eat the large population in China’s capital, Bian Liang, and that’ll make them strong enough that no one will be able to stop them. China really is at the center of the world’s narrative here. Who are these lizard monsters? Tao Tei, based on the zoomorphic designs found on ancient Chinese bronze vessels. Except, they’re just weird alien like creatures who have a design that vaguely resembles Taotei on various parts of their body.
Who’s important? The white guys. Also a few Chinese actors. Characters! The troops are from the Nameless Order, a special division specifically for fighting off these beasts(I had to look on Wikipedia to find that out). There are some divisions, apparently, Wikipedia tells me: “the melee-specialist Bear Troop, the acrobatic-specialist Crane Troop[all ladies in nice bright blue form fitting armor, for, you know, “practical” acrobatic and weight purposes], the archer-specialist Eagle Troop, the siege engine-specialist Tiger Troop, and the horse-mounted Deer Troop.” Lady General is commander of the Crane Troop. She has romantic/sexual tension with Matt Damon. They’re the only characters that matter basically. Besides sidekick Spanish Guy, we also have Incompetent Soldier, who helps Matt Damon multiple times and eventually blows himself up to save everyone(momentarily); Strategist Wang, the main general’s strategist, who is somehow the only character whose name is said multiple times and that’s how I remembered it? and he also sacrifices himself to save the heroes; Willem Dafoe, another mercenary who came looking for black powder and he’s trapped here and he tries to get Spanish Guy to ditch Matt Damon, who’s enthralled with Lady General and trying to be a hero or something, and literally, no one cares–it does nothing for the plot except create needless tension between Matt Damon and Spanish Guy, though one could argue that that tension is needed for Matt Damon’s character development(ha. ok.). My favorite character is perhaps the emperor, who only appears very briefly, but is played by the lead singer of the Taiwanese boy group TP Boys.
Where does the plot actually come in? To be quite honest, I’m not sure it ever does. After being captured, Matt Damon and Spanish Guy have some bromantic angst and Matt Damon and Lady General talk a few times and have romantic tension. All that is inter-spliced with some epic battles with the lizard hordes. Then we find out the lizards tunneled through the bottom of the wall while……um……no one noticed? Now it’s all over and Lady General’s all like, we gotta go to the Capital to save everyone! By “we” I mean her and some soldiers from the Crane division. Also the main general died earlier and Lady General is actually main general of the whole Nameless Order now, so she lets Matt Damon go and take however much black powder he wants, because they’re fronds now and he should warn people in him homeland of the impending danger. But no, character development happened, apparently! Matt Damon is done being a cold-blooded gold-hunger mercenary so he decides to be a hero. He teams up with Incompetent Soldier, Strategist Wang, and some other guy whose name and purpose escapes me, and they get over the the capital to save people. And some sacrifices, awesome action moves, and epic destruction later, the only two people left are Matt Damon and Lady General and they work together to kill the queen. Also, that magnet, it turned out to make the lizards “freeze” for some reason and came in handy during this final battle. After that, all the lizards freeze and it’s all fine and dandy. Shhhh, don’t worry about the masses of rotting flesh that’ll be there for the next few months. And I mean lizard and human corpses alike. Two weeks after the movie events, someone undoubtedly staged a coup amidst all the clean up chaos and overthrew the current dynasty. Matt Damon resolves bromantic tension with Spanish Guy by choosing to save his life(Spanish Guy jumped ship before the tunneling happened and tried to run a way with lots of black powder) over taking lots of black powder home, out of the two options C-Pop Star Emperor offered him. Lady General moved a rank up, or something like that. And they are “not so different after all”, because that was the theme of this movie???
But premise, plot, and character development aside, there were some pretty cool and creative parts in the movie. One in particular is the methods of fighting the lizard hordes on the walls, and the lizard monster designs themselves. For weapons, we have giant catapults that fling up from the sides of the wall and throw flaming balls and spiked balls. The Crane division bungee-jumps up and down into the action and spears lizard monsters. There are maneuvers to create a circle of fire with catapults or shoot things with arrows with bells on them, so at one point, Matt Damon fighting on the ground in a haze of smoke within said circle of fire can hear incoming monsters. At one point part of the wall just lifts up, and giant rotating blades slice monsters coming up the walls. Also, hot air balloons, archery trick shots by Matt Damon who’s apparently an archery master, and arrows with black powder bombs and fuses.
So at the end of all this, you have a film that clearly had a lot of though put into it to respect and glorify China’s rich culture, but it’s just so….dumb.
It’s cool that they would take time to think about incorporating an obscure-ish aspect of Chinese culture to base the monsters off of and also pay attention to some little details, like making the capital Bianliang, which was the capital of ancient China and no longer exists by the same name, instead of Beijing. There seem like things a Chinese audience would appreciate. But then the outfits and tech are just so outlandish it’s a little funny. Everyone has these intricately pattern and brightly colored armour sets, which are all color coded by division. Even the drummers get armour. All the cool tech stuff I mentioned earlier–cool, but really dumb. And I forgot to mention the round, also color coded, shields with razor edges that you can throw or use to get into a psuedo-tortoise shell formation like the ones used by the Romans. It’d be like having a Wild West movie where a machine gun or flame thrower like weapon existed and then someone did a kind of kung fu move to disable someone. And the capital, oh boy. There’s two pagodas in the central plaza/pavilion kind of area, and they have brilliant rainbow colored windows on every level. Not historically accurate, or sensible from an architectural standpoint, given their materials, but damn it does look pretty when they break all that glass, even as my cringe at this point in the movie is slowly leaking out of my ears.
And another thing. On one hand, it’s a basic white savior narrative, even in the most subtle moments, when you have two high ranking generals standing right next to wounded Incompetent Soldier, but you need Matt Damon to tell him that he’s going to be all right, it’s just a surface wound. On the other hand, it portrays China in a very positive light, not only by making them badass and important to the entire world(because they’ve just saved the entire world), but also by contrasting the high morality of every major Chinese character, in contrast to the flawed and coarse white characters. We have three filthy mercenaries–died as he tried to steal black powder, the other(Spanish Guy) was betrayed by the previous guy, and Matt Damon had to go through character development that was only possible by interacting with Lady General. And then we have Lady General being all awesome, even firing the final kill shot when Matt Damon failed twice, in addition to redeeming him, brave and selfless Incompetent Soldier and Strategist Wang, and other guys. It’s somehow a white savior narrative that suits the needs of both audiences–the Chinese audiences who would appreciate having their culture and values extolled(and thus not view it as a white savior narrative because the savior is very flawed and doesn’t save the day alone) and the American and western audiences, who are so jaded with the ol’ idealized hero and appreciate someone who has to struggle.
All in all, The Great Wall is an interesting movie in many respects. Beyond the usual meh video direction and plot problems, there were some interesting concepts and aesthetic decisions and many of the things, like Incompetent Soldier’s sacrifice or the magnetic rock, had some decent set up(the rock still makes no sense, but it was established and referenced as important throughout the film). There’s some weird cultural mix and I’m not sure it works, but I think it didn’t do anything worthy of offending anyone. It tries to add…something to the typical action movie, and in the process, doesn’t end up delivering on either.
I still don’t think the irony was worth the fifteen dollars I spent.