Quite often in action films starring Gerard Butler, the action so overshadows anything resembling character development or acting or complex thought that they become big, dumb explosion and punching festivals, many of which make money. So color me slightly shocked while watching his latest work, Greenland, an end-of-the-world disaster movie that frequently puts the apocalyptic danger in the background—in this case, a potentially planet-killing comet that is actually hundreds of fragments pummeling the Earth over the course of a couple days until the big one hits. And while I’m not sure if this approach makes this better than most of Butler’s other action films, at least I felt engaged with him and other characters scrambling to seek shelter in a top secret location that might be humanity’s last hope for survival, assuming we deserve it.
Butler plays John Garrity, an Atlanta-based structural engineer who builds tall buildings and is such a workaholic that it has caused friction with his wife Allison (Morena Baccarin) to the point where the two have separated but are trying to make it work. He leaves work early to head home, hang out with his son Nathan (Roger Dale Floyd), and begin preparations for the boy’s birthday party. But right when John is at the grocery store getting last-minute supplies, he gets an emergency alert on his phone and a call from Homeland Security telling him that he and his family must report to a nearby military base to be airlifted to a secret location for safety. Now I know what you’re thinking, and no, John is not secretly a heavily trained member of some elite paramilitary team. He’s just an engineer and is as surprised as anyone that he’s being contacted.
Leading up to that moment, we’ve seen on the news or heard on the radio pieces about a comet approaching the Earth and how it will be visible to the naked eye even during the day. NASA believes it will pass harmlessly by. But as the pieces get heated by our sun, they release gases that propel parts of the comet in different, hard-to-predict directions, including right into the planet. As soon as the alert comes in, the Garritys’ neighbors start treating them differently, wondering why he got the call and not them, and some practically throw their kids in John’s car, asking them to take them to safety. It’s around this time that the first big piece of comet hits Florida, and the impact can be felt all the way in Georgia, which puts a fire under everyone’s asses about getting to the base, causing traffic jams and general chaos.
Written by Chris Sparling and directed by stunt coordinator-turned-director Ric Roman Waugh (who helmed Butler in Angel Has Fallen), Greenland becomes more about the danger that other humans pose to each other than an oversized comet, and while the family makes it into the base, John is forced to head back outside to get his son’s diabetes meds while Allison and Nathan get on a plane. They promise to reunite on the plane, but when the military finds out about Nathan’s medical condition, they refuse to let him on the plane, so when John returns, he gets on a plane looking for them. Chaos ensues, a fence is breached, and things only get worse, leaving the family separated with only a note from Allison saying that she’s heading to her father’s place in Knoxville and to meet them there. With no cell phone service, looting increasing, and the world slowly devolving into self-preservation mode (not to mention those pesky comet fragments), meeting anyone anywhere seems like the most difficult plan imaginable.
The rest of Greenland involves bringing the family together again, and then finding a way to get to the military’s secret bunker in Greenland, where the Garritys are apparently just going to talk their way into the shelter, hoping to survive the newest big bang that is expected to wipe out 70 percent of all animal and plant life on earth. Naturally, there’s a countdown clock since scientists have figured out exactly when and where the planet-killer will impact, and yes, shockingly, some of the film feels slightly inauthentic—but not as much as you might think. For the most part, the flow of the multiple storylines and the heavy emotions that drive every action work really well in a surprisingly understated way.
There’s a particularly tough sequence where Butler is getting a ride north in the back of a truck with a bunch of other men, one of whom wants to steal his security clearance wristband, which he may need to travel to Greenland. The scene ends with a death, and John is devastated by his actions—a far cry from many of Butler’s other roles in which killing a dozen bad guys is just another Tuesday for him.
There are some nice supporting performances here as well, including ones from Hope Davies and David Dernman, playing a slightly older couple giving Allison and Nathan a ride, when they discover they both have the previously mentioned wristbands and attempt to kidnap Nathan to get to one of the evacuation planes. The great Scott Glenn is also on hand as Allison’s father, who has his own set of priorities as he faces the end of the world right in the eyes.
To a degree, humanity is put on trial in Greenland, and just about everyone is guilty of bad behavior when all is said and done. In a bold and brave world, the ending of this film would have had the planet-killer miss the earth, and everyone has to take stock in how they behaved in a panic and perhaps face those that they wronged. But that wouldn’t be a very disaster-movie thing to do, and this film isn’t quite that daring. I won’t say how the movie ends, but it’s not exactly how I thought it would. It almost demands a hopeful (if not happy) ending, and that’s more or less what we get. But if this film would have played in theaters, I doubt there would be a great deal of applause—it’s just not that type of movie, and I’m fairly certain it’s not trying to be. Your reaction may vary, but I believe Greenland is genuinely trying to do something different within the disaster film genre, and I appreciate and even admire the effort. Trust me, I’m as shocked as you are.
The film is now available on VOD.
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