The Great Wall isn’t really a white savior story, though you’d be forgiven for assuming that from the poster, which consists only of the giant, glowering face of Matt Damon. Matt Damon is not Chinese, but per Hollywood tradition, that’s not something that would ever get in the way of his saving China onscreen, or stop him from demonstrating how much better he understands Chinese ways than actual Chinese people. The Great Wall arrives in the midst of a spate of Hollywood efforts that have blithely appropriated Asian culture and identity while excluding actual Asian people — Doctor Strange, the forthcoming Ghost in the Shell, and Netflix’s Iron Fist series, not to mention 2015’s whitewashed Aloha. It even features a “story by” credit for Edward Zwick, who in 2003 directed and co-wrote The Last Samurai, a history drama that, honest to god, included a climactic scene in which Tom Cruise reminds the Emperor of Japan to remain true to his country’s traditions. There’s a history here, and it’s bad.
The Great Wall is also bad. To its credit, though, it’s bad for entirely different reasons. The Chinese co-production with a budget of $135 million is the priciest movie to ever be shot entirely in the country. Its director is Zhang Yimou, who once upon a time was one of China’s greatest filmmakers, responsible for lauded historical dramas like Raise the Red Lantern as well as neo-wuxia action sagas like Hero. Aside from a nifty scene involving whistling arrows and mist, though, there’s no trace of Zhang’s brilliance in The Great Wall, an uninvolving feature-length retread of the Battle of Helm’s Deep in which the bad guys are ravenous, interchangeably computer-generated monster-aliens called the Tao Tie — an unmodulated big finish.
At the movie’s center is a secretive, highly trained military group called the Nameless Order who protect the capital using the most cutting edge of fantastical Song dynasty–era techniques and weapons. An early shot of a messenger running through the Nameless Order’s halls enforces the sheer number of costumed extras the production was able to afford. If size and quality were synonymous, The Great Wall would be the greatest ever, because it spares no expense.
Damon is just another extravagance added to the ledger — the purchase of an American A-list actor to be placed in the middle of a story about Chinese technological and moral superiority. Damon plays William and Pedro Pascal plays Tovar, a pair of mercenaries who stumble into the Wall while chasing stories of a legendary explosive “black powder” they hope to get rich off of back in Europe. Willem Dafoe makes an appearance as another Westerner who tried the same years earlier, and ended up imprisoned at the Wall — aside from a blink-and-you’ll-miss-him Pilou Asbæk, the rest of the cast is Chinese, and includes Andy Lau as a chief strategist and former boy-bander Lu Han as a young soldier.
William and Tovar are strong fighters, but they’re hardly heroic — they just as often serve as comic relief, these greed-driven, unwashed foreigners who stand in contrast to the devoted, immaculately armored, selfless Nameless Order troops, headed up by Commander Lin Mae (Jing Tian). It’s due to hyper-competent Lin that William sees the light and is shamed into becoming a better man, Jing a co-lead despite Damon’s top billing. William and Tovar are also handy audience surrogates and onscreen “applause” signs who spend a whole sequence staring awestruck at the immensity and might of the Nameless Order’s operations — “Have you ever seen anything like this?” William murmurs. “Incredible,” Tovar gasps.
If The Great Wall is pandering to anyone, it’s to audiences in China, and they rolled their eyes — after a big $66 million opening weekend there in December, interest in the film cooled quickly.
A few years ago, the studios behind increasingly export-reliant American blockbusters cottoned on to the benefit of casting Chinese stars for additional pull in the huge market. Some of the appearances have been so artificial and decorative that Chinese critics have dubbed them “flower vases.” Hong Kong action legend Donnie Yen may have gotten a memorable role in Rogue One, but superstar Fan Bingbing infamously appeared only in the China-specific cut of Iron Man 3. (The Great Wall’s Jing Tian is also set for export, due to turn up next in Kong: Skull Island, then the Pacific Rim sequel Uprising.)
Clumsily done as it often is, figuring out how to include a foreign star in your costly venture has become good business sense — so why wouldn’t a Chinese co-production run with the same lesson, only in reverse? Damon’s stolid presence as the unplaceably-accented William is on the richer side, as far as roles go — he gets to grow and to show off his archery skills — but it amounts to the same sort of calculation. To suggest that he’s taking the place of a Chinese actor ignores the fact that there are dozens of homegrown Chinese releases with Chinese casts each year that struggle to find a toehold in the US, where international blockbusters fall in the gap between arthouses and multiplexes. For example, China’s No. 1 movie of 2016, Stephen Chow’s The Mermaid, made $536 million domestically and only a smidge over $3 million in the US. The Great Wall was created to wedge an American star into a China-set story to give it more draw with American audiences, with all the cynicism with which Hollywood has approached the issue of how better to appeal to China.
To watch it is to be aware of how little movies this size have to do with art and how much they are product, the result of a calculation involving actorly appeal and spectacle, because spectacle, not story, has the least cultural specificity and the most universal draw. Damon isn’t in The Great Wall to be a white savior — he’s there as a marketing tool for a movie that’s trying to please as many people as possible and is unlikely to please anyone as a result.