The Great Wall’s Great Failure

How one trailer pretty much screwed everything up

I have finally gotten around to watching The Great Wall and I must say a lot of the controversy around Matt Damon and The Great Wall could be blamed on the first trailer they presented. The movie itself did not really acclimate the idea of a White Savior. Damon’s character William was used to introduce us to the world of The Great Wall. The rest of the movie is about William working with other Chinese warriors to fight the monsters. Yet, you wouldn’t​ have known that if you just watched the first trailer the studios released.It’s presented like it is Matt Damon’s ultimate destiny to save China from monsters. The first teaser trailer pretty much fucked up our perception and expectation of the movie. This was how I reacted when I first saw the trailer.

1. The voice over depicts the story poorly

In the last part of the trailer, there are shots of people fighting and explosions around William with his voice over dialogue proclaiming that the battle of The Great Wall is the only thing worth fighting for. He says,

“I was born into battle, I fought for greed and gods. This is the first war I’ve seen worth fighting for.”

Sounds pretty White Savior to me. I mean, it can be inferred that nothing else matter aside from William winning the war. The perception is that he is fighting something that is bigger than himself and he, a foreign warrior, is the key to winning a war in China.

Screenshot taken from a later released trailer of The Great Wall

However, that doesn’t really happen in the movie. William’s skill and experience is only a part of the puzzle, as he and other Chinese warriors work together in order to finally defeat the monsters. The Chinese plays an equal if not greater part in the final battle than that of William’s contributions. William does not save the world in the movie, nor should he. The movie clearly follows a Chinese warrior, Commander Lin Mae, in her fight to defeat the monsters just as much as we follow William’s story of redemption.

Many could be turned off by what William says in the voice over then point to it as a sign of a White Savior. I would agree. The dialogue focuses William’s quest rather than detailing a bigger plot element which led many to believe it was mainly about a white guy trying to save Chinese people. As the trailer persists on the idea that Matt Damon is the sole hero in the movie.

2. A HUGE amount of screen time

This is furthered by the fact that Matt Damon’s face takes up most of the screen time in the trailer. The movie is not The Martian, there was no need to show his face 10 times in the trailer. Compare that to the trailer only showing Commander Lin twice. It’s a 90 second trailer with 32 shots altogether. That means Matt Damon’s face takes up 1/3 of the trailer’s screen time. Other Chinese characters only have 5 shots combined or 15% of run time in the trailer.

Some may argue, that the trailer was trying to pander to western audiences. Which is true, but there could also be a sense of western audiences being misled with premise of the story. As it felt like the story is based around Damon’s William, but in reality the plot focuses on other characters just as much as William. Therefore, by filling a third of the run time with Matt Damon’s face doesn’t make much sense. Commander Lin could’ve had a few more action shots since she is quite instrumental to the story. Yet we see her only TWICE. What a way to pander and mislead people.

3. The Chinese characters don’t speak…like at all.

No one speaks in the trailer except for Matt Damon’s character. Which is kind of frustrating since Commander Lin and other key Chinese characters are bilingual in the movie. For the most part, Lin acts as a translator between William and the rest of the Chinese warriors. The trailer could have had at least one Chinese character say something either in English or Mandarin so that it didn’t seem like Matt Damon was the only person with a speaking role in the movie. It seemed like the entire Chinese cast was just background actors without any dialogue. Have them say something simple like “oh no, a big green monster!” and it would have made more sense than have them starring into distance like statues.

4. Title cards and just too many words

There was way to many words in the trailer. The full transcript of the trailer:

One of mankind’s greatest wonders. 1700 years to build. 5500 miles long. What were they trying to keep out? MATT DAMON. from visionary director ZHANG YIMOU…The Great Wall.

Okay, we understand that the Great Wall of China is one of the great wonders of the world. I don’t know why you need to put all that BS in there just to create anticipation. It’s counter productive, because it could’ve been done with one wide shot of the wall. Oh wait, they did show the wall in the trailer. Well, then what’s the point of the text…?

Also Damon was the only actor title card that was in the trailer. Really? I mean Andy Lau is pretty popular, where was his name? Pedro Pascal is in the movie too, and he was on Game of Thrones and Narcos. What happened to mentioning him? Tian Jian is also a popular actress who is in Kong: Skull Island and the next Pacific Rim movie. Why not have her name on there?

By putting Damon’s name in big bold font does not really make people want to see the movie. It undermines the diversity of the movie. You had a few white guys, a Latino dude, and a bunch of Chinese people, yet all we got was more Matt Damon. C’mon, We know Matt Damon is in the movie. We see his face 10 times. Why not add other actor’s name on there as well.

Ultimately, the movie was decent and Matt Damon was more a white chaperon than a white savior. The movie represents a good step for a Hollywood and Chinese co-production, as Philip Wang discusses in depth in the video. I agree with a lot of the points he makes and wanted to point out how the trailer misled a lot of people into judging the movie poorly. If the trailer had introduced other characters aside from just Matt Damon, I feel that people would have been more welcoming to the movie. It was a huge missed opportunity for the studios as the backlash somewhat hurt the performance of the movie.

Which is unfortunate, since The Great Wall would have a great introduction to more Chinese films distributed in Hollywood. With co-productions between the U.S and China rising, The Great Wall was suppose to be a great step forward. Except, it wasn’t. If the movie had panned out properly, it would have allowed for more frequent opportunities with Asian characters in the future. Instead, they screwed up one simple trailer. Hopefully, the next big co-produced movie could have a more attuned marketing campaign.


Cowin PoonTORONTO 2017