A disaster film starring Gerard Butler, from the director of Angel Has Fallen (2019), creates certain expectations. Butler could have starred in Michael Bay’s Armageddon (1998) had his success come a decade earlier, but Greenland is more in the vein of Mimi Leder’s thoughtful Deep Impact (1998), only faster-paced and with a welcome focus on social drama.
The world is excitedly watching the near-earth passing of a comet named Clarke, which hangs prominent in the sky. And that includes structural engineer John Garrity (Butler), his estranged wife Allison (Morena Baccarin), and their young diabetic son Nathan (Roger Dale Floyd) living in Atlanta, Georgia. But after receiving an unexpected “Presidential Alert” on his phone, telling John his family’s been selected for emergency sheltering, his life takes a nightmarish turn when a chunk of comet expected to land in the ocean instead wipes out the city of Tampa, Florida. As his quiet neighbourhood descends into panic, John whisks his family to an evacuation flight out of Warner Robins Air Force Base, but their journey becomes increasingly difficult thanks to mislaid medication, traffic jams, armed robberies, hostile crowds, jobsworth servicemen, and unhelpful strangers.
Working from a mid-range $35M budget, director Ric Roman Waugh eschews the disaster genre’s reliance on VFX sequences and action-packed set-pieces. Greenland’s story certainly allows for a regular amount of destructive imagery, as chunks of the comet are peppering the Earth as it moves through space, but most of the VFX moments are seen on phone or TV screens. This gives the film a more realistic tone that would match the audience’s if this happened for real. The Garrity’s are just ordinary people fortunate enough to be selected for protection from an extinction-level event. John isn’t a NASA astronaut needed for a bold mission to destroy the comet, or even an intrepid reporter dealing with this madness, he’s just an ordinary guy trying to keep his family safe from harm.
Greenland has a particularly strong first act reminscent of Steven Spielberg’s War of the Worlds (2005) without the Tripods, as the crazy events are set in motion quickly and the problems that arise sink their hooks early on. It creates a real feeling of dread once the Garrity’s become split up, fighting to survive as individuals as society collapses around them. It was especially good to see Gerard Butler isn’t allowed to steal the limelight, as a lot of the drama is shared with an excellent Morena Baccarin as a woman struggling to protect her child from every mother’s worst nightmare at one point.
It would have been easy to have Butler lean into his action-man credentials throughout, with his character’s family pushed into supporting roles and in constant need of rescue, but Chris Sparling’s screenplay manages to balance the two adult roles. One could argue Greenland could have worked even better without Butler, seeing as John’s supposed to be an ordinary engineer in over his head… and this might be true. There’s a moment when John accidentally kills a man and goes into shock, which doesn’t work as well with an actor we’ve seen effortlessly kill hundreds of people in movies before now. The same scene would have played differently with someone you don’t identify with alpha males, who’s perhaps dipping his toe into the action thriller genre for the first time. A more unassuming academic type who has to find that survivor’s instinct within.
What prevents Greenland from totally working is a less satisfying second half, once the initial problems the Garrity’s faced trying to reach their flight are resolved. The story finds new challenges and tensions to expose them to, after a trip to see Allison’s elderly father Dale (Scott Glenn), but they’re not quite as entertaining or gripping. And while it’s great to see a disaster film that doesn’t rely on CGI spectacle, it’s a shame there’s no jaw-dropping climax besides a few tableau’s of devastated world cities. The balance of human drama to action extravaganza could have been better, to give those seeking easier thrills enough of a reward by the end.
However, those are relatively minor issues. Greenland is a film that understands the disaster film genre only works with believable characters you want to see survive, meaning an epic situation becomes a more personal edge-of-your-seat drama. The pyrotechnics and eye-candy is fun and a welcome thrill, but large doses of that isn’t essential, and it’s not like Greenland is utterly devoid of spectacle —there’s a room-rattling air base explosion, a highway being peppered with fireballs, and a thrilling light aircraft crash. But this is a movie that focuses on a small family’s fight to survive against all odds, deepening their love for each other along the way, and it’s all the better for it.
USA • UK | 2021 | 119 MINUTES | 2.39:1 | COLOUR | ENGLISH
Cast & Crew
director: Ric Roman Waugh.
writer: Chris Sparling.
starring: Gerard Butler, Morena Baccarin, Scott Glenn, David Denman & Hope Davis.