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biast | by maryann johanson

The Great Wall movie review: not to be torn down

The Great Wall green light

MaryAnn’s quick take…
Plain pure fun. At its best, it’s Lord of the Rings meets Aliens, with incredible imaginative grandeur and genuinely breathtaking 3D depth.tweet
I’m “biast” (pro): love a good fantasy action movie
I’m “biast” (con): was worried about the apparent whitewashing
(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)

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.

On the scale of how badly it could have gone, what we ended up with is fairly inoffensive.
tweet

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 heretweet).

“I bring word from Elrond of Rivendell. An alliance once existed between Elves and men. No, wait...”

“I bring word from Elrond of Rivendell. An alliance once existed between Elves and men. No, wait…”tweet

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,tweet 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 funtweet 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!

When it takes a moment to be still, The Great Wall sometimes looks like traditional Chinese painting.

When it takes a moment to be still, The Great Wall sometimes looks like traditional Chinese painting.tweet

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.


green light 4 stars

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The Great Wall (2017) | directed by Zhang Yimou
US/Can release: Feb 17 2017
UK/Ire release: Feb 17 2017

MPAA: rated PG-13 for sequences of fantasy action violence
BBFC: rated 12A (moderate fantasy violence, moderate language)

viewed in 3D IMAX
viewed at a public multiplex screening

official site | IMDb | trailer
more reviews: Movie Review Query Engine | Rotten Tomatoes

If you’re tempted to post a comment that resembles anything on the film review comment bingo card (now updated for 2017’s trolls!) you might want to reconsider.

  • Dent

    Oh good, I was worried about what Damon’s role would really be. Nice to hear he wasn’t the Dragon Born or something equally irritating.

  • RogerBW

    Those voracious monsters… are the steppe nomads. It’s like doing a remake of Zulu, only saying that the enemy are literally subhuman. Oh wait, that’s pretty much every fantasy film.

  • Eliza Jane

    I had pretty much decided not to see this because of the apparent “white man solved all of Asia’s problems with advice from the wise ancient,” vibe that fairly drips off it. Somewhat reconsidering? Hm.

  • Jurgan

    Alternatively, it’s saying that the wall was only necessary because of literal subhumans, not Mongols, and so we shouldn’t be so desperate to keep foreigners out.

  • RicoSuave

    The film seems like it will sort of recoup its investment overseas. US box office seems be a bust.

  • That’s what I took from it.

  • Dr. Rocketscience

    Yeah, I don’t know why this is getting panned. I quite enjoyed it.

    Mad props to Matt Damon’s dialect coach. I almost bought that accent, whatever it was supposed to be. But, you know what they say: you can take the kid out of Southie…

    Pedro Pascal is just so awesome.

    Damn, this movie is pretty. That colored armor.

  • Damon’s accent was the weakest part of this, because it comes and goes.

    Pedro Pascal is just so awesome.

    Seconded.

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