Sound Off! The Great Wall

Welcome back to Sound Off!, a semi-regular column where members of Speculative Chic gather together to chat about the latest BIG THING in entertainment. This time, we’ve taken a break from defending China to discuss The Great Wall, which premiered in the United States on Friday, February 17, 2017.

Sound Off! is meant to be a group of reactions, but not necessarily a review. After all, while we are all individuals, even mutual love of something (or hate) can come from different places. You may find everything from critique to fangirling to maybe even hate-watching, but it’s safe to say that if you haven’t yet seen The Great Wall and you read this post, you WILL be spoiled in some form or fashion.

Now, join guest chic Gina Anderson as she talks about The Great Wall! [Note: Film includes minor characterization spoilers but no major plot discussion.]

Gina: The Great Wall exceeded my expectations in more ways than one, but it also left me feeling a little hollow inside. We’ll explore that point later, but I have to give credit where it’s due. The scale of this film was mind-boggling. No detail was spared — well, some of the creatures were disappointing, but that is a whole other blog post.

Now, on to the talent that was herded to pull off this gargantuan film. In China, Andy Lau is a triple threat: actor, singer and film producer. He is a major action star in his own right, but his talents were completely wasted on this film. He’s YUGE, yet in this film he is relegated to some kind of wartime science advisor.

Matt Damon was just being The Martian’s Mark “I’m going to action the shit out this film” Watney in China, but he didn’t deliver. In fact, I kept waiting for Damon to show up. He just sort of sleep-walked through the film, like he didn’t want to be there.

Willem Dafoe makes an appearance typecast as a sneaky, self-preserving villain.  Yeah, I’d say more about his presence, but a) I’d give away too much of the plot, and b) I’m still not sure why he was needed except to get our anti-heroes out of some sticky situations.

Pedro Pascal provided some much-needed grounding to the film’s too serious tone and quite a bit of comic relief. Pascal understood the kind of film he was making — a fantasy film — and he came with the same energy he put into his Game of Thrones character, because gosh-darnit this film cost $150 million to make and it better sell some tickets! His career in China depends on it!

Despite the Hollywood A-List actors, the beautiful cinematography, CGI and visual effects, there was a hollowness to this film. Damon, our hero (or is he an anti-hero?), walks through the film reacting to everything coming at him with such coolness that I found it difficult to care about his fate. If he sacrificed himself, would I care or think of him as collateral?

Pascal does a much better job of convincing us that the situation that they’re in is life or death. Pascal feels fear, Pascal wants to survive. Damon, not so much. Was this just a paycheck film for him? If he accepted the job for any other reason, I couldn’t tell.

There’s also definitely a conscious effort here to assert feminine power in this movie. The top general is a woman. Women are at the forefront of the battle, spearing the creatures while dangling from their perilous perches off of the wall. There’s a lot to unpack in this film, but on this front, The Great Wall hit its mark.

Now let’s talk about the elephant in the room. Immediately following the release of the first trailer, this film was widely criticized for promoting the “White Savior” narrative. White guy saves the day for the natives or other people of color, because there’s no way their thousands of years of experience defending themselves is in any way helpful.

Don’t get me wrong, this is a Chinese film. I’m no expert on Chinese culture, but it is intricately woven into this fantasy film, perhaps the film-making itself. I found myself in awe of the costumes and the nods to China’s numerous contributions to society, including warfare (black powder) and innocuous things like hot air balloons. Some of China’s biggest film stars are directed by a famed Chinese director, Yimou Zhang (House of Flying Daggers and Hero). In fact, when the main characters aren’t speaking to each other in English, a healthy portion of the film is spoken in Chinese with subtitles.

In any case, I get it. It’s hard to push a Chinese blockbuster film to the U.S. market without a major Western star. I could tell the filmmakers tried to walk that fine line between granting as much screen time as possible to its top-paid megastar, Damon, and showcasing China’s fantastic action film skill sets. I believe the filmmakers did their best to make an entertaining film. In that, they succeeded. It’s a shame that Damon did not pull his weight. That’s sad because he no doubt received the heftiest paycheck to “act” in the film.

Gina Anderson is a media relations specialist by day and a young adult sci-fi/fantasy writer on nights and weekends. After graduating from The George Washington University, she taught English in Nara, Japan for two years where she wrote a short story series, The Adventures of Bianca Sukiyama. She received her MFA in Writing Popular Fiction from Seton Hill University in 2015 and BA in International Affairs from The George Washington University. You can find Gina on Twitter, Tumblr and Facebook.

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