The Great Wall: Fictionalizing history

Chinese-Hollywood cinematic collaboration is biggest blockbuster yet

What if instead of protecting China against a Mongolian invasion, the Great Wall had actually been erected to protect against mythical creatures that devoured everything in their path?

That’s the premise of The Great Wall, director Zhang Yimou’s first English cinematic epic set in a mythical China. Written by Carlo Bernard and Doug Miro, the fantasy film stars Matt Damon, Tian Jing, Andy Lau and Pedro Pascal.

European mercenaries William (Damon) and Tovar (Pascal) find themselves embroiled in a clash between humans and monsters after stumbling upon the Great Wall in their search for gunpowder.

The wall is buzzing with activity, as thousands upon thousands of soldiers, their armor color-coded according to their branch, prepare for the biggest battle of their lives. The Chinese Nameless Order—the protectors of the wall—have had 60 years to prepare for the invasion of the Tao Tei—gluttonous green monsters with gaping maws that devour everything in their path. Not only are these monsters impossibly hungry, they are also intelligent and capable of learning. William and Tovar find themselves in the wrong place at the wrong time, on the eve of the greatest clash between humans and beings of myth.

This film is a typical action film, with a peppering of historical accuracy and a whole lot of creative interpretation. The visual elements of the film are one of its strongest attributes. It is exciting, eye-popping and masterfully conducted, complete with sweeping landscapes and fast-paced action sequences that draw the viewer in. An interesting aspect of the film is that it doesn’t present a case of whitewashing. Chinese roles are played by Asian actors, and white actors play the roles of European tradesmen. It is a cultural cross-over rather than a hijacking. In that regard, the film succeeds where others, such as Gods of Egypt, have failed.

This is not one of Damon’s best performances. His accent—whether it’s supposed to be British or Irish is hard to tell—ebbs and flows during the movie, as if he’s still trying to figure it out himself. He delivers a decent performance, yet his character seems much more demure and restrained than other roles he’s played in the past, such as Mars scientist extraordinaire Mark Watney in The Martian.

But maybe his lackluster performance isn’t a bad thing. Damon’s character is a hero and central figure in the story, but he is not the hero. Although he has a hand in helping end the invasion, he is not the white European man who single-handedly saves the day. His character acts more as an entry point for Westerners into the story.

Is The Great Wall great? No. Is it terrible? No. It strikes a chord somewhere in the middle. It is still a good film despite its shortcomings and lack of solid plot. It’s the type of movie you know not to have too high expectations for, so you can sit back and enjoy it.

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