Given the disaster movie genre’s penchant for releasing their films in pairs, like with 1996’s Twister and Tornado!, or 1997’s Dante’s Peak and Volcano, or 1998’s Armageddon and Deep Impact, I wait with bated breath for whichever film is paired with Greenland, the latest Gerard Butler effort to grace our biggest (and smallest) screens. Re-teaming with Angel Has Fallen director Ric Roman Waugh, Greenland squares the 300 actor off with his greatest enemy yet – the end of the world.
With a potentially planet-killing comet (dubbed Clarke by the media) hurtling towards Earth, John Garrity (Butler) must race his estranged wife, Allison (Baccarin) and their son, Nathan (Floyd) across the country to seek potentially life-saving shelter for his family and thousands more. While Clarke is the existential threat looming in the sky above them, Greenland is far less interested in the cataclysmic damage raining down on Earth, and more interested in the (deep) impact such impending doom has on the planet’s inhabitants. Fear not, Greenland offers plenty of the destruction you’ve come to expect from the genre, but its more personal approach to proceedings elevates Greenland beyond the usual fare.
While Greenland does suffer from more than its fair share of clichés (troubled marriage? Check. Chronically ill child? Check.), Waugh and his writer, Chris Sparling, manage to imbue the lead characters with enough life and they’re portrayed effectively by Butler, Baccarin, and Floyd that they do come across as quite a genuine family. In the early sequences when they’re hastily packing their bags, both Mum and Dad put their son first, packing everything necessary for his needs before even contemplating their own; Home Alone eat your heart out. Throughout, Nathan is their absolute priority, even if that priority extends to John thinking he can shout louder than a jet engine. It is all very effectively done, and it allows their relationship to redevelop smoothly as they overcome any bumps they had in their previous relationship (this is revealed rather bluntly towards the end of the film’s second act, though it’s barely given more than a glancing nod in the big picture of the apocalypse).
Greenland does everything in its power to place the Garrity family in one tremendously bleak situation after another; it’s one of the most downbeat blockbusters in recent memory. In the early stages, there’s a horrible sense of Us vs Them as they’re forced to leave their family home, they’re separated at the airport in one of the film’s standout action sequences, they’re caught in a looting-shooting incident, one of them gets into a hammer-based brawl at the side of the road, and there’s even a case of actual kidnapping for them to overcome. Laid out in front of you, it’s a truly wild ride to be taken over the course of Greenland. And yet, given the family are nicely fleshed out, the clear and present danger isn’t the comet, it’s whatever fiasco they find themselves in at that moment in time. John isn’t going to singlehandedly divert the comet (unlike how he was preposterously in charge of saving the world on his own in Geostorm), so all he can control is the safety of his family.
Waugh and Sparling attempt throughout to instil some social commentary on the events of Greenland. When the world is going to end, how exactly would the layman respond? There are some startling moments of human cruelty peppered throughout, that are then pierced by moments of kindness from complete strangers. This is a constant running theme of an ongoing battle of good vs evil in human nature. David Denman (you might know him as Pam’s useless fiancé, Roy, in The Office) appears around the midway point with one of the film’s bleakest sequences and appears to be Good vs Evil personified. Greenland genuinely stunned me at how far it would push its key scenarios to breaking point to earn a reaction. It may be going for shock value at times, but when its viewer is as gullible as I am, shock value works.
While it may be focusing on John Garrity and his misadventures to save his family, Greenland has plenty of intense sequences to thrill. The initial comet crash landing (Tampa in Florida is the first to go) is only shown in news footage, but the visual effects on show are impressive, nonetheless. There’s a brief, explosive sequence involving comet shards raining onto traffic below as John races to safety, but again, its most thrilling sequences aren’t those that start in the sky. Its stand-out sequence, in which a desperate horde of people are trying to board several planes heading to rumoured safety, harkens back to the electrifying ferry scene in Steven Spielberg’s War of the Worlds. When the gate finally crashes down, all hell breaks loose and it’s every man for himself in a sequence that is effectively shot with all the key moments shown clearly amidst the chaos. A lot of Greenland really worked for me, but this sequence is the film’s real highlight.
It’s a shame that the film felt it needed to tack on the ending that it did. The film’s final moments do not reflect either the quality nor the themes of the film that preceded them. It does end the film in a particular place that alludes to something more, but the chance was there for it to end on a more ambiguous note and become a talking point in 2020 cinema. Alas, I can’t help but feel the film ends on something of a missed opportunity.
Greenland feels like a very modern blockbuster. It has a knowing wink to disaster movies that came before it with cliché dialogue (“take my truck, it has a full tank of gas!”) and eye-rolling moments, but so much of it is done so effectively that I let it slide. It’s an intense, bleak, and frequently thrilling disaster movie that impressed me throughout, courtesy of its well-written characters being placed in genuinely horrid scenarios. Gerard Butler, you’ve redeemed yourself from whatever the hell Geostorm was. Upon reflection, Greenland is one of the better disaster movies of the century and, for my part, the best one since 2004’s The Day After Tomorrow.
Greenland will be available on VOD from Friday 18 December 2020.