A family struggles for survival in the face of a cataclysmic natural disaster.
Someone once sold Greenland to me on the notion that I would get to see Gerard Butler, disaster movie god, punching a comet. Whilst that may not literally be the case, Greenland still surprised me with constant emotional punches to the gut.
This isn’t a typical disaster movie. There’s no last minute rescue, people do die. Lots of people die in fact. Rather than portray its apocalyptic scenario as something exciting and adventurous, Greenland is tainted by a heavy heart. After two viewings I can confirm that on both occasions it left me feeling downbeat and resigned to meeting an inevitable fiery end.
Chris Sparling’s script wastes no time in getting to the action. There’s some brief setup where we meet John Garrity (Butler), his wife Allison (Morena Baccarin) and their son Nathan (Roger Dale Floyd). John is a structural engineer, an important fact when the world is about to come to an unfortunate end. Act one surprises with some genuine character development and human emotion. John and Allison don’t have the perfect marriage, their family is fractured and it provides a strong through-line for the story. Sparling clearly respects his characters as much as he does his concept. That fact alone deserves high praise.
That ominous comet, called Clarke, looms large from the outset. We learn very quickly that it surprised scientists by appearing very suddenly. But luckily for us it’s only passing close by and shouldn’t be an issue. So the Garrity family goes ahead with a tense party for family and friends. By the time John arrives the military are already on the move and he’s received a presidential alert telling him that his family has been selected for saviour. Again Sparling’s script is pitch perfect in delivering an building sense of tension.
What follows is one of a number of turning points in the narrative. The party goers gather to watch the exciting first impact. At this stage the shard of Clarke is expected to land in the ocean with little consequence. It’s interpreted by the characters as a moment of excitement. But as a view it’s a moment of heavy anxiety knowing what is to come. When the shard strikes Florida we are forced to watch via news footage. Once again the script delivers a moment that doesn’t amplify action over human reaction. It lands (intentional pun) perfectly.
As the pacing picks up so do the number of emotional blows. The cast all do an exceptional job of bringing a deep sense of loss. As the Garrity family evacuates and makes their way to safety a number of neighbours plead with them for help. It’s sickening to watch and plays in what feels like a very true-to-life manner. Greenland could easily become fantastical and overblown. But despite a strong sense of melodrama it never feels over the top.
But much like over disaster movies Greenland does rely on a number of convenient plot twists. It seems the US government hasn’t done a great job of screening those selected for saviour. After losing Nathan’s meds the Garrity family is suddenly struck from the list and left to fend for themselves. Separated and with no phone signal, John and Allison manage to divert to the same location thanks to a handily placed post-it note. I could go on but high-concept disasters need these kinds of plot devices to maintain narrative flow otherwise they simply wouldn’t function.
One of the most pleasant surprises in Greenland is Morena Baccarin’s Allison. During the second act she shoulders most of the narrative. With John elsewhere she and Nathan become the central focus. It smoothly transitions from the generic man-v-comet trope to a mother fighting for her family. Baccarin is able to inhabit a strong maternal role often overlooked in a disaster movie for the sake of an archetypal male hero. She arguably outshines Butler as Allison befalls a number of harrowing events through which we absolutely root for her to come out on top.
Butler and Baccarin make a good partnership and fully commit to their roles as broken parents. Their fight for survival becomes an analogy for their fight for their family. Small moments of kindness and laughter between adds buoyancy to the heavy plotting.
In the rollercoaster third act the family are reunited and a new challenge lies ahead of them. They still have time to make it to safety. The question becomes whether they should try. There’s a brief refrain from the action as the cast regroup at Allison’s fathers house. Scott Glenn’s grumpy Dale adds some light relief to an overbearing narrative which was causing genuine anxiety. At this point it’s a race for survival. Any faint hope of rescue is gone and it has become clear that Greenland is absolutely not the predictable carbon copy of the genre.
To the bitter end Greenland fails to falter in its mission. The story is impactful to the final moment. Even reaching relative safety does not guarantee survival for the Garrity family. The film coalesces in a hugely emotional moment, heightened by flashbacks, as the final shard strikes. The extinction level event allows Sparling and director Vic Roman Waugh a last opportunity to tease the audience. An ominous fade could easily have given Greenland the typical ending. A chance for audiences to interpret the ending as they see fit. But like I said, this isn’t a typical disaster film.
Instead Greenland ends with a moment of hope and some resolution. It’s a definitive ending befitting of a film which wants to break from tradition. Whilst there is still more that Greenland could have done to stand apart from the pack, it still succeeds in poking its head above the parapet.
Greenland shocks and surprises with an emotional impact almost as heavy as that of its antagonist comet.https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_AHCbbIzclk
Directed by Ric Roman Waugh, Greenland stars Gerard Butler, Morena Baccarin, Roger Dale Ford and Scott Glenn.