The Great Wall is not a great movie. It’s got quite a bit of fun to it, but even more than a good movie on a purely textual basis, it is a fascinating film on a subtextual basis. The Great Wall is the first big attempt by the Chinese film market to garner worldwide box office acclaim, and it does so by adopting Western tropes in order to convey a propagandistic pro-China message. As a demonstration of this exact moment in the shifting dynamics of China’s role in the global entertainment marketplace, The Great Wall is a film rife with opportunities for think pieces and serves as a peek into what the future may hold. And it certainly doesn’t hurt that the film manages to be somewhat entertaining in the process.
In ancient China, a couple of European mercenaries, William and Tovar (Matt Damon and Pedro Pascal, respectively), quest to find the mysterious new invention of gunpowder and bring it back with them to their homelands. They are soon captured and brought to the Great Wall of China, which in this fictional history serves as a barrier to keep a ravenous monster horde from crossing into populated lands. Upon seeing their struggles, William decides to step up and assist the army in their protective task.
For those concerned about the white saviorism of Damon’s character, those fears aren’t entirely unfounded, as William is a supernaturally competent bowman who does act as the face of the film’s primary action setpieces. However, what’s interesting is that while the film is using the white savior trope in order to seem like a Hollywood action film, the film’s messaging clearly makes William a subservient character to the grander splendor of the Chinese army. The film’s true hero is Commander Lin Mae (Tian Jing in a star-making role), whose function is to teach the unkempt Western barbarians the value of discipline, self-sacrifice, and cooperation for the good of a nation’s singular cause. Whether or not you agree with that sentiment, it’s a fascinating perspective to see pushed through the stealthy guise of problematic tropes the rest of the world is familiar with.
As for the film itself, it’s a fun enough adventure, though it isn’t without its glaring flaws. The action setpieces are colorful and inventive affairs, with costume design to die for and creative uses of hot air balloons, bungee jumping, and blade traps to add variety to the proceedings. However, this is somewhat hampered by the drab and uninteresting design of the monsters the Chinese army must defeat, rendered with CGI that looks about ten years out of date. Furthermore, the character drama is shallow even by the film’s admittedly arch standards, and the English line delivery leaves something to be desired. Damon in particular, whether due to laziness or poor direction, constantly loses and regains an Irish accent to increasingly comic effect, which lets the Chinese inexperience with this level of global appeal all the more apparent.
Still, when all is said and done, The Great Wall is a fun enough film. I wouldn’t necessarily recommend a theatrical viewing, but if you happen to catch it on a streaming service and need to recover from a hangover with bright colors and a plot you don’t need to pay too much attention to, this film will fit the bill. But even more interesting than the film itself is the future it foretells for the Chinese film industry. This won’t be the last we see of this type of film, and our expectations of the values portrayed in our blockbusters may be changing sooner than we realize.