The Great Wall (2017) is a sprawling Chinese fantasy epic, with explosive fight scenes, terrifying otherworldly creatures, and a trite moral. But none of that matters, because as the Chicago Tribune‘s Michael Phillips dismissively declared, it is a “white savior movie.”
BuzzFeed’s Alison Willmore attacked the film for following the “spate of Hollywood efforts that have blithely appropriated Asian culture and identity while excluding actual Asian people — Doctor Strange, the forthcoming Ghost in the Shell, and Netflix’s Iron Fist series, not to mention 2015’s whitewashed Aloha.”
The controversy of the white Matt Damon (The Bourne Identity, 2002) starring as the hero of this movie (about China, filmed entirely in China, and in which the vast majority of characters are Chinese) even spawned its own hashtag, #ThankYouMattDamon.
— Invader Diễm (@JeakPaul) February 16, 2017
#ThankYouMattDamon for telling me how to write "WHITE SAVIOR" in Chinese for my new Chinese tattoo.
— Kristina Wong ❄️ (@mskristinawong) February 16, 2017
But is The Great Wall an insulting “whitewashing” of Chinese culture or merely a botched attempt to sell a bland film to a global audience? The Atlantic‘s Christopher Orr argued the latter. “There was a brief, misplaced controversy over whether Damon’s casting was an example of ‘whitewashing’ akin to Tilda Swinton’s portrayal of the Tibetan ‘Ancient One’ in Doctor Strange. It isn’t: [Chinese director Zhang Yimou] always intended a Western actor for the role in order to broaden the film’s appeal beyond Asia.”
Orr maintained that the problem with The Great Wall is that “it is a disheartening reminder … of the dangers of aggressively tailoring a film to a ‘global audience.'”
Here, Orr hit the nail on the head. The movie’s biggest flaw isn’t the race of any one character, but the fundamental shallowness of the story. The Great Wall tells very little about actual Chinese mythology, and spends surprisingly little time explaining the Great Wall of China itself. It attempts to give weight to the story by implying that the European adventurers — caught up in an epic struggle for humanity — might have been the first white men to discover black powder, thus playing a pivotal role in European civilization.
Then the film adds a trite moral, explaining that “the gods” — who remain nameless and unexplained — sent the evil creatures the Tao Tei to destroy mankind because of humans’ excessive greed. This might have worked, if the actual way to defeat these monsters directly involved fighting greed or rooting out this vice from the hearts of Chinese people. But instead (slight spoiler) it’s all about warfare and military prowess.
The Great Wall actually presents the Chinese as a proud and impressive people, and while Matt Damon is the hero who ultimately saves the day, his own prowess is vastly outweighed by the might of the secret Chinese army, “The Nameless Order.” This army consists of infantry, archers, and graceful women fighters in blue, who dive into the air to attack the monsters below, hoisted back up to safety by a complicated rope design.
The wall itself is reminiscent of the ice wall in Game of Thrones. From this fortress, Chinese armies hurl huge balls of fire from catapults and unleash scythes to rip the Tao Tei as they climb up the wall. The dazzled European travelers have never seen anything like it.
Even better, the Chinese have a trust ethic in war that blends their prowess and their patriotism into a masterful fighting force. The European travelers, however, are the scum of the earth. At one point, the Spanish mercenary Tovar (played by Pedro Pascal, famous for his role in Game of Thrones, 2014) turns to William (Matt Damon), declaring, “I know what you are — a thief, a liar, and a killer.”
William, an Irish renegade (with an absolutely horrifying attempt at an accent which distracts from the rest of the movie), marries his awe-inspiring skill with a bow to the Chinese warrior ethic to become a true hero. But even then, he would be useless without the help of Commander Lin Mae (played by the Chinese actress Tian Jing, Special ID, 2013).
If anything, the film is pro-Chinese to a fault, but internally inconsistent. While the Tao Tei are an instrument of the gods to punish greed, their ultimate defeat has nothing to do with gods or moral effort, and everything to do with cunning, luck, and military prowess. According to the movie’s logic, there is no reason why the gods should not merely send a new batch of monsters to Earth.
Despite epic action sequences that are surprisingly well-paced and eye-popping, the film’s climax rings hollow, and tastes cheap at the end.
Similarly, the movie manages to take a stellar cast — including Damon, Pascal, and Jing, along with Willem Dafoe (Spider-Man, 2002 and The Boondock Saints, 1999, among others) and the talented Chinese actor Andy Lau (Internal Affairs, 2002) — and utterly waste it with disappointingly flat character development. Besides Damon, the characters prove predictable and static. Even Damon’s William evinces little to no true change, from beginning to end.
Contrary to the Social Justice Warriors, The Great Wall‘s failings have nothing to do with the racial makeup of actors and everything to do with weak storytelling and shoddy character development. As The Atlantic‘s Orr explained, the film was watered down to a fit a global audience, and this left it with little internal consistency.
If you want a mindless, eye-catching action thriller with impressive cinematic scenes of Chinese fireballs, lady warriors flying through the air, and Matt Damon stabbing and slashing creepy fantastic beasts to kingdom come, this is the movie for you. The action sequences will remind moviegoers of the thrilling Battle of Helm’s Deep in The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, and the impressive “Watchers on the Wall” episode of Game of Thrones season 4.
But don’t expect a truly good movie. The Great Wall fully deserves its embarrassing 36 percent on Rotten Tomatoes. If it bombs at the box office, it won’t be because of “cultural appropriation,” but because audiences wanted something better.