IGN reported yesterday that The Great Wall is Matt Damon’s “worst wide release box office opening weekend since 2011” but that the film is “one of his better performing films worldwide”.
This is the craziest movie I have seen since Jupiter Ascending, which is saying something because that movie is f*cking bananas. The Great Wall comes from Chinese filmmaker Zhang Yimou (Hero, House of Flying Daggers), and is China’s attempt at a Hollywood-style action epic, right down to stunt-casting an international star to appeal to foreign audiences, except REVERSE! This time Matt Damon is the stunt-cast star meant to increase appeal to Western audiences. It’s the same cynical ploy American studios have been using for years to appeal to Chinese audiences and it doesn’t work any better in reverse—Matt Damon is horribly miscast. But I will say this for The Great Wall: It’s not boring.
Damon stars as William, a twelfth-century explorer of undefined European ancestry—his accent is Scotch-Irish-Gibberish (Scoibberish?)—who is in China to steal “black powder”, aka gun powder. But William and his fellow thieves, including Tovar (Game of Thrones’ Pedro Pascal), are beset by giant lizard monsters and everyone but William and Tovar dies. William manages to cut the claw off one of the monsters, though, which is the first instance of White Guy William being better at everything than everyone else.
Alison Willmore at Buzzfeed makes the case that Damon isn’t serving a white savior trope so much as servicing cynical business interests, and while that is certainly true, it doesn’t change the fact that at every crucial juncture in the story, here comes William to provide the critical intel or ability to save the day. Yes, William and Tovar are dirty unwashed foreigners who stand in stark contrast to the sharply dressed and regimented Chinese monster-fighting army, the Nameless Order. (Their color-coded armor sort of makes them look like ancient Chinese Power Rangers, but credit where it’s due: Mayes Rubeo’s costumes are pretty great.) But it’s William who has the big idea to kill the monsters, and he is also the one with the magnet needed to do it. Oh yeah, this movie is about killing space aliens with magnets.
It is a little hard to get caught up in the politics of The Great Wall because the movie is just so f*cking bonkers from the beginning and it only gets more insane as it goes along. I don’t want to completely dismiss the issues of casting a white actor to play the hero in a film about a Chinese army besieged by space aliens, but again, this movie is about killing space aliens with magnets. There’s a lot happening, is what I’m saying.
What’s amazing is how miscalculated the tone is. I’ll give this to the Wachowskis: Jupiter Ascending never struck the right tone, but it certainly didn’t suffer from being too serious. The Great Wall takes itself VERY seriously, and if ever there was a movie begging for the breathtakingly dumb energy of xXx: Return of Xander Cage, it’s The Great Wall, which includes a sequence in which giant scissors spring out of the Great Wall to cut space aliens in half. That is one of the best parts of the whole movie because it’s equal parts crazy, dumb, and visually interesting. Another good sequence is when the Blue Power Rangers bungee-jump into the horde to snipe space aliens. Zhang does some interesting camera work with that, but the rest of the movie is your standard Hollywood action epic, which we’ve seen a million times at this point.
Spectacle alone is no longer enough to satisfy, and without a coherent story to support it, The Great Wall falls flat. “Space aliens attack ancient China” has a kind of “bees can sense royalty” appeal, but just as with Jupiter Ascending, The Great Wall is overloaded with backstory and nonsensical plot points—again, all of this hinges on MAGNETS— and Matt Damon is as miscast here as Mila Kunis was in Jupiter Ascending. The white savior trope is just one issue among many that plague The Great Wall, the biggest of which is the old fashioned Hollywood cynicism at the heart of the film. American studios want to make movies that appeal to China, and Chinese studios want to make movies that appeal to America. We’re going to have to figure out how to make good movies with cross-cultural appeal without feeding destructive narrative tropes. The Great Wall is not a success, but it’s only the first attempt.