If you go into Greenland, the latest world-threatening disaster opus fronted by Gerard Butler, expecting the over-the-top scene-chomping chaos in the vein of Geostorm, you’ll find something quite different. Sure, the fate of the world is on the line, but the Scottish tough guy isn’t the one responsible for saving the day, and this is much more grounded and straightforward.
Though we’re talking destruction on a potentially global scale, the story is much smaller and personal—instead of trying to save the world, he’s just trying to save his family. And the result is the best disaster movie in quite some time. The best Hollywood disaster movie in quite some time anyway, the 2015 Danish import The Wave still sets the high-water mark in that regard—pun very much intended.
Gerard Butler plays John Garrity, an everyman trying to mend fences with his estranged wife, Allison (Morena Baccarin)—because every hero in every disaster movie always has an estranged wife—and his moppet of a son, Nathan (Roger Dale Floyd). When a comet with the decidedly ho-hum name of Clarke, makes a beeline for Earth in what would be an extinction-level event, he has to find a way to get them to safety.
That’s it. At a basic level, that’s the story. It is, of course, much more difficult than that, and Gerard Butler’s John is thwarted at every turn. In reality, it’s all pretty typical stuff, standard disaster movie fare. Their escape is fraught with obstacles: there’s a lottery to decide who the government saves, the diabetic son loses his insulin, there are problems with the evacuation point, the family gets separated, and so on. There’s nothing particularly inventive, surprising, or even original going on, but while Greenland hits familiar beats, it does most of them really well.
Chris Sparling’s script is essentially an escalating series of problems, one piled upon the next. Simple, but effective. And stuntman-turned-director Ric Roman Waugh (Angel Has Fallen) takes every opportunity to ratchet up the pressure. Again, there’s nothing mind-blowing or innovative, but it’s efficient and generally successful in its efforts to crank up the tension.
And it’s not even that fire constantly rains from the sky—don’t worry there’s plenty of that, and exploding planes, and Gerard Butler hammer fights in the back of a pickup on the freeway, pepper the movie, highlighting Waugh’s action background. But for most of Greenland, probably the first two-thirds, the threat of annihilation from above is just that, a threat, looming out there. We get moments and glimpses, often shown via news footage or social media posts, which keeps the larger threat a presence while the characters deal with the more in-your-face concerns of the moment. It’s also a handy strategy with the film’s relatively modest $35 million budget.
Gerard Butler’s John and Morena Baccarin’s Allison navigating the human element is where the film is most harrowing during this stage. Waugh and Sparling do a good job of showing the various reactions to the strain of impending doom. Some people pray, some party, some essentially kick off the Purge; there’s both cruelty and kindness as individuals go out of their way to help while others only look out for number one. If a car pulls over, are their intentions altruistic or do they have robbery on their mind? Questions like this center and ground the main action, giving every choice and move an urgency.
For the most part, Greenland clips along at a brisk pace, propelled by the moment to moment hurdles—it’s one barrier after another. The filmmakers don’t waste a lot of time with the setup—there’s tension in the marriage, the kid has an illness to contend with, there’s a comet, go. Gerard Butler plays a solid concerned father and husband, Morena Baccarin delivers an equally sturdy worried wife and mother, and the kid is there, too. The script doesn’t ask much of the actors, or require them to stretch in any way, but they do what they need to do and accomplish what they set out to accomplish.
This one-disaster-to-the-next approach to story structure provides enough energy to push Greenland forward. Until it doesn’t. With around 40 minutes left, things hit a deep lull and the momentum peters out. The story bogs down in the minutia of the Garrity family drama, which does the film no favors. It’s tedious and bland, not to mention ill-timed in the grand narrative scheme. When we stop, we realize how flimsy the characters are. It’s forgivable when they rush through one hazard after another, reacting and making split-second choices, but when there’s time to truly look at them, their thinness shows. No one cares why Gerard Butler and Morena Baccarin’s characters broke up.
Greenland attempts to work out of this pause by kicking up the disaster quotient. This is where we get flaming space debris bombarding our heroes, apocalyptic chaos, and what amounts to a car chase with comet chunks. But even though they up the ante in this regard, the plot rehashes what came before; the characters do things they’ve already done, and this repetition feels stale. Even with cataclysmic explosions, fireballs from the heavens, and all manner of end-of-the-world pandemonium, the film kind of limps to the finish line.
With Greenland, Ric Roman Waugh, Gerard Butler, and company deliver precisely the movie they promise. Big and booming, there’s plenty of bombastic thrills and brink-of-annihilation action, with just enough human connection to keep viewers engaged. It never veers from the disaster movie template, but everything it does, it does well and should more than sate those looking to watch the world crumble on screen.