Remember that movie, ‘The Great Wall’, from 2016? Where Matt Damon travels to China and saves the world. Not ringing a bell? I watched it over the summer.
The Great What?
The Great Wall did not do so well. It lost the studios that made it quite a lot of money. And, just from looking at the trailer, I get why. That trailer screamed ‘white savior’, and beyond that it was just a lot of empty blockbustering.
It didn’t look bad, but my thoughts were mostly ‘meh’. Of course, I had a young baby at the time, so going out to a theater required some doing. I really had to want to see a movie to go — and I chose Dr. Strange over the Great Wall.
But, this summer I ran into the Great Wall on Netflix, and sometimes a mindless blockbuster is what you want. So, I watched it. Let’s dig in.
The movie is set in the 11th century. Matt Damon and his gang of medieval thugs travel the silk road east, in search of a magic powder. This ‘gunpowder’ could change the world, and make them rich. This is actually historically accurate. Gunpowder did exist as a weapon in China at that time, and it did come to Europe along the silk road. Only a few centuries later.
So, European thugs in China. One night, a monster comes out of the shadows and attacks them. Only Matt Damon and his companion Pedro Pascal survive and manage to kill it. Oh, I’m using the actors’ names, because I don’t really remember their actual characters. ‘Medieval thugs with a heart of gold’ sums up their characters nicely, so names really don’t add a lot.
Anyway, the two survivors continue on their way until they end up at the foot of a great big wall. The legion on the wall captures them and spares them when they find a leg of a dead monster with them. It turns out the Great Wall was made to keep a horde of alien monsters out of China — this is slightly less historically accurate, by the way. And the legions guarding the wall have gunpowder aplenty to fight.
Matt and Pedro are quickly entangled in the defense of this Great Wall. It turns out Matt Damon is as good at fighting the beasts as any Chinese Warrior. Moreover, he has a secret weapon even he didn’t know about: magnets disrupts the monsters link to their hive mind.
Oh, and they meet another European: Willem Dafoe! Willem Dafoe is also after gunpowder, but has been imprisoned at the wall for years. Matt wants to help defend the world from aliens, but Pedro and Willem are not interested in monsters, they just want gunpowder…
All in all, the movie is entertaining. Matt Damon does well, and Pedro Pascal and Willem Dafoe are also great actors. The acting is good, the visuals are good, and the action has some interesting twists. However, the overall effect is… forgettable.
This movie lacks a true emotional impact. The monsters are, in the end, monsters. Monsters work as villains if they seem very powerful and push the horror buttons. These hordes are not horror-level scary. So, yeah; It’s really good guys fight monsters, good guys defeat monsters — oh no, I spoiled the ending. But not really, of course, because it is very predictable. After seeing the first monster you can guess how this goes.
Even that isn’t a sin. I mean, Prey was pretty predictable, but still awesome. The Great Wall… just doesn’t bring anything new or interesting to the table. Not in characters, not in plot, and not in action sequences. Well, that’s not entirely true. It has really cool visuals, which hail back to movies like Hero and House of the Flying Daggers, but those movies did them better.
It’s all good, but none of it is great, or even memorable.
The white-washed Savior
The big cloud looming over this movie is: is this movie white-washing? And is it falling back on the ‘white savior’ trope? I’d say… not really.
First the white-washing. The movie isn’t doing that. An integral part of the plot is a group of medieval Europeans wanting to steal gunpowder. The plot calls for a European man, and Matt Damon is playing it. You can argue that the movie could have been written for an Asian main character, but that would require a different script, and changes the movie. Maybe that would have been a better movie, but it’s not really whitewashing.
Just to be clear, I’m not saying that makes it okay. We need more diverse scripts and movies. But, in this case, the studio did not take a script that calls for Asian actors and put white people in their place.
I think the movie would have been more interesting if they’d changed the lead. Commander Lin Mae is the female love interest/lead, and I think she’d have made a better protagonist. Her arc was the more interesting one, and introducing Matt Damon later in the movie, running roughshod over her aims could have pushed this movie to something truly interesting.
Then the White Savior angle. I’m ambivalent about this one. In some ways, Matt Damon does act like a white savior. He single-handedly saves the world. But that’s a staple of these kind of action movies. Bruce Willis single-handedly foils a group of terrorist-thieves in Die Hard. Sylvester Stalone is the best climber in Cliffhanger, even after being beaten to a pulp. It’s just what makes these movies what they are.
So, yeah, Matt Damon saves the day, but not because he’s white, but because he’s the protagonist in an blockbuster action movie. Again, the writers/studios could have made different choices — and should have, in my opinion — but does that make it racist? I honestly don’t know.
Regardless, the movie didn’t work out well.
The Great Wall is a dime-a-dozen action movie. It’s not bad, but it’s definitely not great. So, should you watch The Mediocre Wall? Forgettable as it was, it was an entertaining hour-and-a-half.
If you want an action movie with some pretty visuals, it really is kind of fun. But if you want a great action movie with Willem Dafoe, I’d recommend John Wick instead — even if you’ve already seen it.