The name Gerard Butler appears on the marquee and you already know what to expect. A mid-grade action thriller that’s an amusing diversion at best, a bore at worst. It can be said, then, that the expectations were extremely low for Greenland, a movie about a man trying to protect his family from fragments of a comet that about to strike Earth, wiping out most of humanity. Roland Emmerich would have a field day with this sort of plot, but at a budget of only $35 million and a star in a considerable career slump, the expectations were low for this one.
Turns out, Greenland is good. Really good! Ditching the bombastic disaster movie trappings, director Ric Roman Waugh (Angel Has Fallen) and writer Chris Sparling go for something human. Something immediate. Dare I say… realistic? It all starts with our lead, John Garrity (Gerard Butler). This time, Butler’s not playing an over-the-top action hero, but a regular Joe; a structural engineer estranged from his wife, Allison (Morena Baccarin) and son Nathan (Roger Dale Floyd).
Although far from the archetypes of a typical Butler action vehicle, the family drama starts off a little forced. These aren’t dynamics that we haven’t seen before and Sparling recycles the same tired beats. Greenland knows, however, that the intrigue doesn’t lie in the family proper, but how the cataclysmic situation affects them. After 10 or so minutes of rudimentary dialogue, Garrity receives a secure message from the US government. This message indicates that the comet Clarke, which was merely supposed to pass Earth, is now being fragmented, with these fragments set to strike Earth and cause mass devastation. Garrity and his family have been screened and selected to be evacuated.
Now, at the time Garrity receives this message, he’s at a comet-watching party with his family and the neighbors. As he and his family realize what’s happening, so do the neighbors. Waugh directs this scene with an ever-increasing sense of dread, as everyone else realizes they’re not chosen for evacuation. The drama is thick. Some neighbors try to bargain with Garrity, others resign themselves to fate, but the mood is bleak and dire. It’s akin to a really fantastic episode of The Twilight Zone, with us simply observing how humans break down in the face of imminent destruction. Yet this scene is merely a kick-off to an increasingly tense story.
From the moment they leave their home, Greenland weaves a tapestry of subplots together that illustrate the nature of human beings when faced with crisis. There are the bigger scenes – like a chaotic sequence at the evacuation point where Garrity has to race against the clock to grab his son’s insulin from the car before the plane takes off – or even more frightening diversions like Allison and Nathan hitching a ride with a couple who have sinister intentions. But perhaps my favorite is a quiet moment between Garrity and Colin (Andrew Bachelor) in a truck full of survivors.
Amidst the chaos, Colin willingly gives Garrity key information, showing who he is with full honesty: a good man. While the moment doesn’t last long, their camaraderie strikes a chord, sending a message that even in the apocalypse decency can still exist. As it goes on, Greenland grows a bit more ridiculous, with car chases and mass destruction. In other words, it becomes everything you expect from a Gerard Butler action movie. But even to that endpoint, it remains a damn fine character drama about trying to save the ones you love from crisis. Like World War Z before it, Greenland shows that these large-scale disaster movies can be more than a spectacle; they can reveal humanity. –James Preston Poole
Greenland is now available on video on demand.