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Disaster films are always fun. Even the bad ones. Fortunately, Greenland is one of the better ones and even though we’ve seen this premise countless times before – a family must do what it can to survive when a comet is destined to destroy human civilization – it’s a tried and true premise that’s executed well and is very entertaining.
While the world is focused on the news of a comet named Clarke that will narrowly fly past the Earth, John Garrity (Gerard Butler) and his wife Allison Garrity (Morena Baccarin) are trying to fix their struggling marriage. Only it turns out the largest part of the comet, which is actually comprised of many smaller pieces, is actually slated to hit the Earth and possibly wipe out nearly all life on the planet – an extinction level event. John learns that, because of his occupation, he and his family have been selected by the government to be saved and put into an underground military bunker. The bunker, however, is not in the United States – it’s in Greenland.
John, Allison and their diabetic son Nathan (Roger Dale Floyd) must get themselves to a military base as quickly as possible so they can be flown to the bunker in order to survive the catastrophe. Things obviously don’t go to planned as their son is turned away due to his medical condition and John is separated from his family. The Garrity family must find a way to reunite with each other and get themselves to Greenland before the comet hits.
But like most disaster movies, it’s not Mother Nature that’s the most dangerous adversary – it’s desperate people doing desperate things and the Garrity’s must learn to deal with human nature if they are to survive and help build a new world.
Being a disaster movie I don’t really expect much in the acting department because let’s be honest – you’re there to see the world burn. What makes Greenland different from other notable entries in the genre such as The Day After Tomorrow or 2012 is that the focus is much more on the characters in a plausible scenario than the spectacle of the disaster. So while there are definitely some cool “destruction by falling comets” scenes, much of the tense and gripping fear we see onscreen comes from human vs human interaction in a time of crisis, so there’s actually some pretty solid acting.
Gerard Butler gives a strong, relatable performance as a man who has made a mistake in his relationship and is doing his best to make amends and keep his family together. Once the focus shifts from saving his marriage to saving the lives of his family, Butler shifts gears and becomes a man who, despite his good nature, must go beyond his comfort zone in order to survive while still holding onto his humanity. The trauma of having to leave your friends to die while you have been chosen to live, right through to having to take a life are expertly conveyed by the seasoned actor.
Morena Baccarin also delivers the goods in a moving performance as a wife trying to forgive her husband and salvage her marriage while also being a mother trying to ensure the survival of her son. When her character is separated from her husband, Baccarin delivers powerful scene after powerful scene when she must deal with the obstacles that threaten the life of her child. From being rejected by the military when they are so close to salvation, to dealing with the evil and desperate actions of other people, Baccarin nails bringing the character of Allison to life and at times you forget this isn’t a drama.
Ric Roman Waugh (Angel Has Fallen, Shot Caller) has directed a compelling disaster movie that is surprisingly low on the “epic disaster” spectacle when compared to most films in the genre, which works to this film’s advantage. In other films, I usually find scenes showcasing the [insert your disaster] epically destroying everything in its path generally overdone and gratuitous, little more than excuses for special effects making up for the terrible script and mediocre acting. In Greenland, however, the disaster spectacle is more calculated and used sparingly to deliver far more impact to the story. The special effects are not the star – the characters are.
Seeing the world in Greenland quickly turn to chaos reminds us how fragile society is and how quickly people can turn to violence when they are desperate or angry – a harsh truth we in the United States and around the world have learnt in 2020. This truth is probably why these types of movies are so captivating because it’s what the people do that is generally more dangerous to the heroes than the actual disaster. By focusing on this human truth under the backdrop of a comet hitting the Earth, Ric Roman Waugh keeps the audience engaged because human vs human violence is something we have actually witnessed and understand as opposed to comets falling from the sky and destroying our cities.
While I’m a big fan of disaster movies with big, dumb, crazy plots and an overabundance of CGI destruction (see the recent Ashfall for that very scenario handled well), the smaller scale of the impending crisis and focus on the human elements made Greenland extremely enjoyable. This is a genre film driven more by character and humanity, and less by Hollywood bombast and just seeing familiar sights destroyed. Even though the premise has been done to death, solid casting with strong performances and a focus on dramatic storytelling makes Greenland a disaster movie with substance.