The Great Wall (2016)
Occasionally it seems that a newly opening movie happens to include exceptionally relevant topics apparently ripped from the current headlines. In the overwhelming majority of instances, this is nothing more than a coincidence, albeit frequently a serendipitous one for the studio. The most recent movie that brought this scenario to mind was an action/adventure creature set against one of the greatest civil engineering accomplishments in history, ‘The Great Wall.' Although the construction of this exceedingly massive structure is true and indeed still standing, the feral antagonists and Caucasian protagonist are entirely works of fiction. The marketing boost induced by current events was a result of a major campaign point that served as the center plank of a Presidential candidate’s platform morphing into a significant point of contention when his new administration took office. The idea of a wall to defend against hordes of dangerous foreigners is ancient.This movie does remind us that despite claims repeatedly made during the campaign the proposed wall cordoning off the southern border of the USA will not be the most effect wall ever nor was it imagined by someone who "builds walls better than anyone else". This coincidence arguably had some influence on the failure of the film to recoup its estimated $150 million budget with the domestic box office although the global receipts did clear a tidy profit. The unintentional controversial natural of such a wall may have contributed to the lack of audience interest. Then again, the film wasn’t all that good in the first place.
One controversy that was attached to this movie from the beginning was a phenomenon referred to as ‘whitewashing,' the use of Caucasian actor in ethnic roles. The main star of this story was Matt Damon, a proven commodity, especially in this genre. Also, one of the most sought-after character actors, Willem Dafoe. For a movie set in China, the biggest movie that country has ever had, there had to be some quasi-reasonable plot contrivance to explain the dominant participation of Europeans so far from home. Fortunately, the history of China is vast and misunderstood by much of the public so the inevitable use of dramatic license may slip under the notice of the audience. Twenty European mercenaries set off for China in search of the secret of gun power. Set in the 11th century during the reign of the Renzong Emperor. While several miles north of the Great Wall, the men waylaid by a savage group of bandits that kill most of the adventurers. Among survivors was one of the leaders, William Garin (Matt Damon) and (Pedro Pascal), avoid death, concealing themselves in a cave. Their situation goes from bad to worse when they discover they have stumbled into the lair of a monster. Forced to fight for their lives, the emerge after severing one of the creature’s arms. The quickly flee but have the foresight to bring the proof of the creature with them. Making their way to the Great Wall, they are captured by a secret military organization, The Nameless Order. Sanctioned by the Imperial Court, formed for the sole purpose of repelling extraterrestrial beings.
The construction of the story has the feel of the screenwriters taking random pages from a series of different scripts representing a hodgepodge of genres. Just so far the synopsis touches on plot points from historical drama, action blockbuster, creature and science fiction featuring alien invaders. It strange that with this myriad of disconnect themes, tropes and stereotypes the dominant objection focused on the use of white performers in an Asia production. At least the performers were cast as Caucasian characters not descending to the nadir of casting white actors crudely made to look Asian. For the most heinous example of this consider the role given to Mickey Rooney in ‘Breakfast at Tiffany’s.' that represents the epitome on insensitivity and racial stereotyping. It bodes ill when such a considerable number of caveats are prudently provided to establish the environment surrounding the production and subsequent marketing of the movie. It is not uncommon for any movie with a greater dependency on the stunt coordinator and special effects supervisor than the inherent talents of the cast, director and screenwriter to quickly relegate the plot of the story to serve solely as a scaffold for the explosive action sequences.
The mélange of horror, science fiction, and historical period setting continues unabated has what passes for a storyline proceeds. The big bad of the flick turns out to be a variation of demon that is part of the local culture, the Tao Tei. As an established ancient evil spirit filmmakers have traditionally considered a culture’s mythology to be a valid source of plot contrivances necessary particularly when there is little actual content available. Perhaps if the screenwriters, Carlo Bernard and Doug Miro held to a conservative, efficient mode of telling a story, the quality of the resultant movie could have been substantially improved. A straightforward use of a supernatural boogeyman could have driven an adequate source of terror while remaining contextually consistent with the fundamental tenants of the historical foundation. By infusing such extraneous elements as science fiction tropes from the fifties. The use of extraterrestrials as the source of cultural mythology is directly from one of that horrendous pseudo-science as exemplified by the certain TV host with a haircut that itself defies logic or reason. This person, and others like him, see aliens as responsible for any incredible human accomplishment they are unable to comprehend and attribute it to interference by a superior race from beyond the stars. This ilk is incapable of understanding much of anything they see aliens throughout history. This is a poor excuse for a program that unfortunately diminishes the reputation of the History Channel, but regarding this movie, it undermines any possibility of adequately forming an emotional bond between the audience and characters. By lacking such a connection with the viewers, it renders the story is impossible to care about anything that happens to the characters. Hardcore action fans will continue watching because despite the general shortcomings of the film it does work as a reasonably exciting action flick.
Originally the film was released in China and several months later in the United States. The theatrical format included 2d, 3D, and Imax 3D but the home release has been limited to DVD, Blu-ray, and the relatively new 4K UHD. It appears that once again we are forced into yet another format war. Many of us have lived through the transition from records to tape through to CD and the numerous types of DVDs. With tapes, we had to choose between VHS and Betamax, but now there is the fight between Ultra High Definition and 3D. The two formats are mutually exclusive requiring specific Televisions, receivers, disc players, and cables. Very few will opt to maintain two expensive systems, so a choice is required. ‘The Great Wall’ is available on Vudu but only as a rental, not for purchase. Having watched both the UHD and 3D variations I must continue to prefer 3D. Unless you are below the age of twenty-five or so your visual acuity to fully appreciate the full advancement in resolution and high definition, the 3D effects used in the movie did provide an extensive boost for your enjoyment. The director, Yimou Zhang is making his English-language feature film debut after a successful career as one of China’s foremost auteurs considered a natural treasure. He has an innate understanding of the use of the illusion of depth to enhance the visual experience not holding the responsibility driving the entire movie. When coordinated with an expertly synchronized with a robust six channel sound stage you will be drawn into the action. The story had substantial potential as a cohesive story, but even with that left untapped, it remains a suitable popcorn flick for a Saturday afternoon.