The new film by the great Chinese director Zhang Yimou came to my attention the way most things do these days: people complaining about it on the internet. People took up arms against The Great Wall without having seen it, without knowing what it was about, without looking into it at all. Instead, they decided that it was a clear case of "whitewashing," a(nother) film about a white savior—in this case Matt Damon—intervening in an international ethnic context that should not require him. Or worse: playing someone of another ethnicity. It was hard to say which because only about 90 seconds of the film and a poster image were then available. When the teaser trailer was released last summer, actor Constance Wu accused the film of “perpetuating the racist myth that only a white man can save the world.” And because life is the way it is now, she was joined by a huge chorus of fellow truth sayers.
The original teaser.
On the one hand: Who even cares? It’s not like there aren’t a million films like the one described in these complaints. And though Zhang Yimou has made some of the most astonishing films in the history of cinema (Raise the Red Lantern, Ju Dou, Hero)—as well as the 2008 Beijing Olympics opening Ceremony—even great artists make bad choices from time to time.
And furthermore, why should ANY civilian be called upon to give the benefit of the doubt to backers of the most expensive production ever filmed in China—even if the cast and crew are predominantly Chinese? It is totally fair and logical to assume the worst of Hollywood (to say nothing of Beijing), even if you happen to admire Zhang (to say nothing of Damon).
The problem is that The Great Wall is not “that” kind of film. It’s not a case of a messianic white man coming to liberate the savages with the power of his magical charisma. Nor is it a case of misbegotten or “problematic” casting. The Great Wall is, in many respects, a rejoinder to "that" kind of film. More to the point, however, it is a monster movie, with roots in multiple other genres, notably Western, sci-fi, and b-grade action-adventure. Its DNA bears traces of Lord of the Rings, Game of Thrones, Aliens, World War Z, and Blazing Saddles (or at least all the Westerns it satirized).
The more representative second trailer.
Damon plays an Irish mercenary who is captured while scavenging in the land near the Great Wall of China for gunpowder, some time during the Song Dynasty. Before long, the prisoner discovers what the wall and the astonishingly well-trained Nameless Order stationed on it are there to defend against: the Tao-Tei, a plague of nearly invincible, human-eating dragon creatures that swarm the wall in an effort to gain entry to China’s interior, where the food supply will be boundless, thus allowing them to conquer the planet.
And, for what it’s worth—MASSIVE SPOILER ALERT; STOP READING IF YOU CARE ABOUT THAT KIND OF THING, IF YOU’RE EVEN STILL READING, ANYWAY—despite becoming a useful ally because he’s so brave and keen with a bow and arrow, Damon does NOT save the day, does NOT show the savages anything about being a great warrior, and does NOT evince the transcendent, White Man’s Burden-y nobility that marks the heroes of films like Dances with Wolves or The Blind Side or A Time to Kill. If anything, he is the one who is transformed by his time among the Chinese soldiers with the exquisitely designed Battle of the Planets-style uniforms. They are prepared to die in the service of their country, while he is just a lowly bow for hire.
AND, not for nothing, but the big climactic moment in the film, the one you know is coming the minute you first see the dragons if you have ever seen a single movie ever before in your life? That Death Star moment? When—DOUBLE SPOILER ALERT AGAIN—only a single shot can prevent the destruction of the entire universe? That moment is built on Damon’s character deferring to the general of the Nameless Order, who is a Chinese woman, and she is the one who takes the crucial shot and… well, I won’t spoil the big ending.
The flaw with The Great Wall is that it isn’t fun. In a way, it seems Zhang may not have been the ideal director for it, because despite his stunning dexterity with the human elements of the action sequences, his mastery of choreographed movement along every axis (the film is worth seeing for the Crane Corps—the all-female brigade of acrobatic warriors who jump off the wall to spear the giant lizard enemy, only to be hoisted back up in a nick of time—alone), he doesn’t appear to have noticed that the story he’s telling is completely ludicrous. His commitment is so thorough that he neglects to capture the particle of silliness shared by every one of the films he uses as source material. The film isn’t humorless, but the jokes are faute de mieux, and kind of stapled on. (All the genre pastiche doesn’t yield the kind of absurdist humor that energized the neglected genre tweaker Reign of Fire.) Instead of a giddy mash-up of genres, it lists toward the generic.
One other flaw: The dragons look dumb and digital, and we are now two decades deep into the “infinite CGI orcs/bugs/zombies/whatever swarming the battlefield” effect that makes action sequences into expensive video game reenactments with only scale and no stakes. Time for a new trick.
(Oh yeah, one other thing: I'm really only guessing that Damon is doing an Irish accent.)
After all that, what I find I resent most is the lingering impulse to defend The Great Wall against its pre-detractors. I couldn’t have less of a dog in the race of this movie’s financial success or failure, and I generally believe that taking a personal interest in the way any piece of entertainment is marketed is a sign that you have simply given up. BUT BUT BUT. At the risk of "whitesplaining" or pouring another coat of whitewash on the fire or whatever, I do care about the way the internet, and social media in particular, has eroded not only nuance, but meaning itself. The decision that The Great Wall was wrong became an nearly instantaneous article of faith. And like all articles of faith, it was based on plausible conjecture, reasonable prejudice, and a valid-but-not-flawless attention to historical precedent. It was also based on groupthink, self-aggrandizement, and the zeal for an audience’s validation—three things that almost always generate bad art.
The loser isn’t just some $150 million dollar movie, which isn’t that great to begin with (despite being better than it will ever get credit for). We are all diminished, if only a little, every time a mob encircles an idea it doesn’t actually understand—or even attempt, or indeed want to.
Maybe this kind of thing seemed like a bigger deal before the constantly-flowering atrocity of Trump’s election. But it’s worth remembering another lesson history teaches us: that the pernicious joy of seeming righteous can be just as effective at creating a climate of dread as overt totalitarianism.
Or CGI dragons, anyway.