The Great Wall, set somewhere around a thousand years ago, opens with a rather incongruous zoom in from orbit down onto that impressive structure. Nobody was watching from up there back then, but it’s kind of a joke, I guess, a reference to the not-true “fact” that the wall is the only human-made object visible from space.
Also not true: Matt Damon’s whiteness blinds the viewer to the Chinese-ness of The Great Wall.
I know, I know: This is the movie about Matt Damon as the white man who steps in to be the hero in medieval China when no one else could do the job. Except that’s not true either! He’s not the only white guy — there’s also his Spanish traveling companion (Pedro Pascal: Game of Thrones) and another dude (Willem Dafoe: John Wick, The Fault in Our Stars) who’s been a prisoner at the wall for 25 years. Well, perhaps that is not the best defense of the notion of casting a white lead in a Chinese film: “Wait, there are yet more displaced white people!” Still: The Chinese forces were doing an awesome job before Matt Damon (Jason Bourne, The Martian) came along; he’s astonished, and rightfully so, by what he sees of their capabilities. And while he does have some small contribution to make to the military effort, he is far from the only person here to pull off heroic feats (not only men are heroes here).
On the scale of how badly it could have gone — casting a white Hollywood actor in a Chinese production in order to lure in xenophobic Western movie audiences — what we have here in The Great Wall is fairly inoffensive (she said as a white Westerner).
Now, I think I would have loved The Great Wall just as much if it starred the great Andy Lau (House of Flying Daggers, Infernal Affairs) as the central character instead of shuffling him off to a supporting role (where he is still great), and if the whole thing was subtitled instead of just a few bits here and there. But then it’s unlikely that this movie would have been released in IMAX 3D, and that is the way to see take in the spectacular fantasy warfare that is the real reason to see this. The characters are a bit thin, and in a few places the CGI is a little cheesy, but at its best, The Great Wall is Lord of the Rings meets Aliens presented with incredible imaginative grandeur, genuinely breathtaking 3D depth, and stuff flying off the screen at you that had me flinching and blinking in ways that I can’t recall ever happening before. I had the sort of plain pure fun watching this movie that usually comes with a Star Wars flick. There’s a visual loopiness here that’s more Hollywoodized than we’ve seen before from director Zhang Yimou — I adore his glorious House of Flying Daggers; not so much his Curse of the Golden Flower, though it is visually wild — but is still tense and exciting in a way that feels fresh and engaging. The daring of the women warriors of the Crane Corps, led by Commander Lin (Jing Tian): oh my!
The soldiers of the Nameless Order — love it! — are defending the realm against hordes of monsters they call the Tao Tei, which are based on a fictitious creature from Chinese mythology that represent greed and gluttony. These things like to eat, and they do not appear to be of this Earth. (There is a suggestion, in fact, that they might have alien origins.) The symbolism of the Tao Tei is about as deep as The Great Wall gets, unless you want to count the unspoken — and likely unintended — implication that walls are required only to keep out monsters (and even then walls are not unbreachable), not foreigners. Damon’s William — a foreign mercenary who has journeyed to China to secure some of the rumored “black powder” — is welcomed even though he is a barbarian, and though the Nameless Order, led by General Shao (Zhang Hanyu), are wary of him at first, what follows between the visitor and the locals is not a culture clash so much as an exchange of ideas… and mostly in William’s direction. The script may have been written by a bunch of white guys (Carlo Bernard, Doug Miro, Tony Gilroy, Max Brooks, Edward Zwick, and Marshall Herskovitz), but it does not pretend that in the 10th or 11th century, when this is taking place, that the white guy was not the savage, or that China did not represent the pinnacle of civilization, one with far superior technology (though I’m not sure magnets would have tripped up the Chinese the way that happens here).
I will be delighted when we reach a moment in which a movie like The Great Wall is considered worthy of a wide release and of mainstream interest without a white man at its center. But until then, I’ll gladly take this.