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Forget "white saviors": The Great Wall is really about fighting giant lizard monsters

The film, which technically stars Matt Damon, is a gorgeous, bombastic spectacle and little else. If you turn off your brain, you’ll love it.

Matt Damon in The Great Wall
Matt Damon technically stars in The Great Wall
Universal Pictures
Alissa Wilkinson covers film and culture for Vox. Alissa is a member of the New York Film Critics Circle and the National Society of Film Critics.

A few things you should know about The Great Wall: It’s simultaneously 400 percent more movie than most and 10 percent as much movie as most — huge, bombastic, colorful, explosive, and containing almost no story at all. It’s roughly equivalent to watching the assault-on-Mordor bits of The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King for 103 minutes. It was filmed in 3D, and I ducked a few times while watching. It also made me seasick, but that’s my own damn fault for sitting too close to the screen.

None of those are necessarily a strike against the movie, which fantastically achieves its simple goal: to be a big, eye-popping spectacle about a Chinese legend. It is big. It is eye-popping. It is about China. And it is definitely about a legend. It also doesn’t have a single thought in its noggin, but it does have armies of toothy monsters.



If that sounds like what you need right now, read on.

The Great Wall is about fighting monsters, and that is all it is about

Matt Damon plays a European mercenary warrior named William who has traveled to China in the company of his frenemy Tovar (Pedro Pascal). He’s heard rumors of a “black powder” that turns the air to fire and promises to revolutionize how war is waged, and he wants to bring it home with him. Camped out in the desert one night, they’re attacked by a creature that they can’t see through the darkness. But William slays it and slices off its giant, scaly green hand, which he packs up and carries with him — along with a big black magnetic rock — to the Great Wall.

Tian Jing in The Great Wall
Tian Jing, who is a badass in The Great Wall.
Universal Pictures

That Wall is protected by a huge battalion of soldiers of the “Unnamed Order,” of which there are various contingents in different brightly colored uniforms. One full contingent is led by a woman, Commander Lin (Tian Jing), and made up of women, which seems to briefly surprise William and Tovar. The men are captured by the soldiers, who are reasonably convinced these Europeans haven’t arrived in China in good will. (They also spot another European man skulking around the castle, played by Willem Dafoe.)

But before much can happen, their captors turn their attention to the claw William carries, which the Chinese soldiers deduce — rightly — means the monster onslaught is about to begin.

The monsters are fearsome creatures they call Tao Tei, which are like a cross between bloodthirsty leopards, lizard-like dragons, and some kind of piranha. And what comes next is, indeed, an onslaught. Millions of them, all swarming up to the Great Wall. All the firepower of the army can’t really contain them, though the magnetic rock that William has seems to exert mysterious powers over them.

This story could have wandered into “white savior” territory (and some people certainly feared that would happen), but it doesn’t, really: The Chinese are clearly highly skilled and far more advanced technologically than any of the European men, whom they call “barbarians.” Commander Lin speaks English and fights like a champ, and though William is a highly skilled archer, her prowess, and the prowess of her army, leaves him in the dust. What he has, besides his bow, is this magnet that tames the Tao Tei.

The Great Wall is pure spectacle, and that’s all it wants to be

In its barest outlines, The Great Wall is about a potential clash of civilizations that’s diverted when the humans are threatened by the Tao Tei. It’s also halfheartedly about learning to trust other people, as Lin must teach William about the monsters. (There’s a distinct feeling that most of the story got shaved off the movie at some point, its narrative is so thin.)

An archer in The Great Wall
Bam! Pow!
Universal Pictures

But really it’s just about massive, imaginative set pieces, endless battles, and balletic fighting that is often quite beautiful. That’s largely what you’d expect from director Zhang Yimou (Hero, Raise the Red Lantern), who is more visual artist than storyteller. Zhang also directed the visually stunning closing ceremonies of the Beijing Olympics in 2008, and watching The Great Wall is a lot like watching that: a show of pride in one’s country, its beauty, its innovations.

It’s true that Matt Damon is “in” this movie, in the sense that he appears in it. But The Great Wall requires its apparent star to do an excessively tiny amount of acting, to the point where a CGI version of Damon could be swapped in, Rogue One-style, and I’m not entirely sure anyone would know the difference.

Hot air balloons in ancient China from the movie The Great Wall
Hot air balloons in ancient China, which are pretty cool.
Universal Pictures

But who cares? The Great Wall’s story is firmly beside the point. And, in truth, that’s not a terrible thing. February is a time for spectacle and maximalist cinema, for escaping the winter doldrums by dialing everything up to 11, whether it’s John Wick: Chapter 2 (assassins, but more of them!) or Fifty Shades Darker (kinky sex, but more of it!) or A Cure for Wellness (eels! so many eels!). Complaining about a lack of depth is basically pointless, and at least The Great Wall is upfront about its total lack of interest in compelling narrative. All it wants to do is entertain.

If you go see The Great Wall, you are there to be entertained. And if you turn off your brain, you will be.

The Great Wall opens in theaters on February 17.

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