The Failure of “The Great Wall”

“The Great Wall” was supposed to be a major blockbuster appealing to both Chinese and American audiences. Instead, it turned into a flop. The basic idea is decent: that the Great Wall of China was built to keep monsters out. However, strip away the special effects and monsters and the story is basically weak.

The hero is a European mercenary who is looking for gunpowder that the Chinese have invented. While looking for this gunpowder, he’s captured and held at the Great Wall while the Chinese armies battle the monsters. What makes “The Great Wall” flop is that the hero isn’t compelling enough and the monsters aren’t engaging enough.

Let’s start with the hero because ultimately, all stories are character-driven, which means that a flawed hero learns to change and become a better person. In “The Great Wall,” this isn’t fully fleshed out. The rough idea is that the hero is a thief and a liar, and he must learn to trust others. The problem is that this flaw isn’t set up earlier in the film.

In the beginning, the hero appears to be a noble, strong, trustworthy man who fights off the monsters and escapes roving bands of tribesmen (who never seem to get attacked by the monsters). Because the hero does not come across as a thief and a liar, his conflict and change later into someone who learns trust doesn’t make sense. As a result, his change isn’t really a change at all because he’s essentially the same person from start to finish with only the other characters claiming he’s a liar and the hero himself saying he trusts no one when in fact he does trust others when he helped protect his men in the initial battle.

So because the hero isn’t flawed in the beginning (but only says he is), his change at the end feels pointless. A far better opening would have him lying to save himself and let his men die as a result. Then he could feel guilty about letting them die. That would immediately paint him as a flawed character. Instead, we see a hero who’s basically trustworthy and loyal from start to finish.

Because the hero doesn’t change, the story action means nothing.

“The Great Wall” also fails in that the monsters are a nameless horde. There’s no sense of danger directed just at the hero. Instead, the nameless horde of monsters threaten everyone without targeting the hero in particular. With any villain, the villain must directly threaten the hero somehow. In “Alien,” the hero is directly threatened by the alien creature along with the queen alien in “Aliens.” In “The Great Wall,” there’s no danger to the hero from the villain because there really is no villain. A villain is a specific threat. In “The Great Wall,” the villain is just a nameless horde of CGI animated creatures.

Rather than overwhelm the audience with a horde of monsters in the beginning, it would have been more effective to have a single monster who breeds and gradually creates more of a threat later on. But the key would be for the monster to directly threaten the villain and become a focal point for the audience to fear and hate.

In even the worst melodramas, there’s always a villain for the audience to direct their fear and hate towards. Think of a bad melodrama where the villain is twirling his mustache while tying a girl to railroad tracks. This single villain is easy for the audience to hate. In “Star Wars,” Darth Vader is easy to hate but a faceless horde of stormtroopers is not.

So “The Great Wall” fails on two points. First, the hero doesn’t really change. Second, there’s no single villain threatening the hero. This combination of two major flaws makes “The Great Wall” a visually interesting but ultimately disappointing story that no amount of special effects or fighting can overcome.

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