Ric Roman Waugh’s Greenland emerges as 2021’s first major surprise: yet another large-scale disaster movie, it leaps head-and-shoulders above its genre to become the strongest film of its type since Michael Bay’s Armageddon back in 1998.
On the same day that it becomes clear a fragmented comet is going to catastrophically collide with the Earth, engineer John Garrity (Gerard Butler) and his family (Morena Baccarin and Roger Dale Floyd) are selected to take shelter in an underground bunker to survive the extinction-level event. As the panic rises around them, their journey to safety becomes a race against time.
This is a film whose premise seems purpose-built for eye-rolling: the star and director of bombastic of low-rent action flick Angel Has Fallen reunited for a film in which the planet is increasingly bombarded with enormous falling rocks, and a rugged alpha male must save his wife and child by any means necessary. Intended for theatrical release in mid-2020, it has now emerged as yet another COVID-19 casualty being sold off to streaming services instead. We’re running close to a quarter century of these global scale disaster movies, and while they generally have some level of destructive appeal they are much more often than not preposterously conceived, poorly written, and performed by mid-range film stars with one eye on a pay cheque. The addition of B-grade fixture Gerard Butler in the lead role appeared to make Greenland’s quality a foregone conclusion.
Not only is this Butler’s strongest work in several years, it is also a career-best achievement for director Ric Roman Waugh and a particularly impressive disaster film. To a large degree it does keep between the lines of its genre conventions, but specific creative choices and innovations lift it well above the average. Greenland is genuinely worth your time.
One of the reasons for its success is its perspective. Audiences are overly familiar with the big set pieces of disaster films, in which asteroids wipe out whole cities or tsunamis crash across a coast sending vehicles and buildings tumbling in its wake. Greenland keeps things personal. The first major incident of the film is witnessed via a television set. Subsequent events are seen from street level. In one sequence inside a ransacked pharmacy the camera keeps low with Morena Baccarin as she crawls across the floor to safety. Where the characters are, that is the level of destruction that is seen. When a city burns down, it is only seen as a fiery glow on the horizon.
This personal perspective is matched by a personal scope. At no point during Greenland does the audience see the President of the USA. Neither do they encounter high-ranking generals or astronauts tasked with blowing apart the approaching comet. John Garrity is not even a special forces soldier or ex-marine. He is a structural engineer with a suburban house in Atlanta, a marriage facing trouble, and a diabetic seven year-old child. The most common behaviour in any given action scene here is running away. When physical combat does ensue it is chaotic, panicky, and brutally short.
The action is not dominated by Butler either, despite his extensive action credentials. As wife Allison, Morena Baccarin gets her own share of set pieces in which to struggle. No surprise that the two characters are quite quickly separated in their chase to get to an aeroplane: while John faces the increasingly lawless streets without a car, Allison is forced to deal with armed looters, the US military, and attempted kidnappings. Their performances are great: realistic, emotive, and innately likeable. Roger Dale Floyd is also great as the increasingly traumatised young Nathan.
This film has small elements of realism everywhere. It is populated with a variety of believable characters. In one striking scene, a military officer notes to Allison that only 10 per cent of soldiers are being evacuated to safety – the remaining 90 per cent have volunteered to stay behind and help civilians to the bitter end. Disaster movies have a tendency to show the worst instincts of humanity in a crisis. Greenland does that too, but it also shows off people at their best. In any real-life crisis, it is the people who help that most stand out. It is the firefighters running into the World Trade Center as it burns. It is the volunteers rescuing wildlife when Australia’s bushland burns to the ground. It is perhaps the film’s best asset.
Some viewers will not enjoy Greenland. Despite its many excellent qualities it does remain a disaster movie, and anyone tired of the general formula will likely fail to find much of appeal here. The film’s influences are clear and numerous: a bit of Deep Impact here, a touch of 2012 there, for example, and some tonal similarities to 28 Days Later. It is in the way it varies and transforms its genre tropes that Greenland excels. It is great to see a genre film actually work to go that extra distance.