I enjoy a good disaster flick now and then, but many of the modern ones - including 'The Core', 'The Day After Tomorrow', '2012', 'San Andreas' and 'Geostorm' just can't seem to get it right. They all follow the same dusty formula: there's a warning, it's ignored, everything goes south, innocents die, the "bad guys" somehow also die, and the hero who sounds the warning from the beginning typically survives.
Hollywood seems to have a fetish for smashing entire CGI cities to bits, as if that is what thrills the audience. I prefer smaller-scale disasters, where you can at least partially get invested in one set of characters - not three or four sets of stock figures scattered all over the place. Two of my favourite disaster movies ('Deep Impact' and 'Dante's Peak') are from the 1990s, and the only good 21st century global disaster films since then have been Zak Hilditch's 'These Final Hours' and J. A. Bayona's 'The Impossible'. So how does Ric Roman Waugh fare with his excursion into cataclysmic cinema, 'Greenland'?
John Garrity (Gerard Butler, 'Geostorm', 'Gods Of Egypt') is a structural engineer whose marriage is on the rocks. Then actual rocks start falling from the sky - interstellar debris from a passing comet. The first one wipes out Tampa, with many more to come, including an extinction-event-sized "planet killer."
The Garritys - John, his wife Allison (Morena Baccarin, 'Deadpool', 'Spy'), and their 7-year-old son Nathan (Roger Dale Floyd) - are gathered in the living room with their neighbours watching the first piece of comet debris enter the atmosphere on TV. Something has gone terribly wrong. The bolide in question hasn't exploded in a light show over the Atlantic Ocean as promised. As reports of destruction start to come in, an emergency alert lights up on John's phone - and no one else's - followed by an automated call with instructions to pack a bag and report to a nearby Air Force base for evacuation to parts unknown.
SWITCH: 'GREENLAND' TRAILER
Some doomsday backup plan has just been activated, and John and his family are part of it. Their friends are understandably upset and scared that their hosts were chosen, but not them - it's clear anyone not chosen will die a horrible death - and even more upset when Garrity and Allison shrug apologetically and get ready to leave without worrying much about them.
Except, as the Garritys learn the hard way, their evacuation order was a mistake; they were supposed to have been removed from the list because of Nathan's diabetes. As for where the apocalypse-proof bunkers might be, that's a government secret (the film's title is a big hint). A series of nightmare scenarios ensue as the family unit is separated while trying to reach this safe zone.
The set-up reminded me of Lorene Scafaria's 'Seeking a Friend for the End of the World', that horrible movie where Steve Carrell and Keira Knightley made for one of cinema's worst-ever romantic pairings. It had one nifty idea: that the government told everyone a killer asteroid was on its way and there was no stopping it, but they also lied and said that they had two more weeks than they actually did to avert the worst stages of societal breakdown, à la 'These Final Hours'.
'Greenland' is a return to the trope where the "everyman" repairs his rocky relationship with his wife/girlfriend by punching people/jumping over fire/crashing through a wall or whatever other action hero things he can think of. It's not like he's actually changed, or grown enough to properly deal with the relationship issues. It's just that he has an opportunity to show off how manly and in charge he is. However, it isn't as on-the-nose here as it was in, say, M. Night Shyamalan's 'The Happening'. Our heroes even get the chance to act unheroically for parts of the movie, which is refreshing.
As I mentioned, disaster movies are one of my guilty pleasure genres, despite them often being completely unrealistic and campy. Yet, for a large chunk of time, 'Greenland' avoids that trend... even though it stars Gerard Butler, an actor whose name is synonymous with B-Movie action fluff. Despite my low expectations, I was pleasantly surprised and satisfied with his performance as a beefy Scottish everyman. Butler owns a burly allure - green-eyed and barrel-chested; his handsome face weathered; he's the sort of "man's man" performer we don't really see much of anymore. Maybe it helped that Roman Waugh didn't ask him to try to fake an American accent or to play a scientist, a Secret Service agent, an Egyptian God, Dracula or the Phantom of the Opera.
Cinematographer Dana Gonzales has a good eye for sharp widescreen compositions, and Roman Waugh exhibits a crisp facility with end-time atrocities and despair, from rioting to hijackers.
Perhaps the appeal here has something to do with the current global pandemic. Disaster movies, like horror flicks, reflect the anxieties of their era. Generally, people seek out disaster films because they want the vicarious thrill of watching destruction from the safety of a theatre. In the 1950s, many of these movies used alien invasions or radioactive creatures to explore Cold War fears. In the '70s, big disaster blockbusters like 'The Towering Inferno' and 'The Poseidon Adventure' wrestled with the threat of technologies failing people.
The majority of 'Greenland' is an exercise in building tension. It taps into the uncertain relationship between the people and the government, until a literal explosion causes the military to lose all semblance of control. What did it for me were things like a small act of mercy during a pharmacy looting, and a soldier scanning the abandoned son and telling him he was rejected for evacuation for being sick. These moments were surprisingly emotional.
Although it is chaotic, 'Greenland' moves with commendable swiftness. Cinematographer Dana Gonzales has a good eye for sharp widescreen compositions, and Roman Waugh exhibits a crisp facility with end-time atrocities and despair, from rioting to hijackers. The impact VFX on the landscape as the Garritys watch through the window of a plane - the detail and sense of realism are amazing, with the different layers of pressure waves hitting the mountainous contours of the surface. It feels like a lot of time, research, and simulation rendering went into that shot.
A moderately engaging, suspenseful story helps, but ultimately a disaster movie has to deliver the whiz-bang. Unfortunately, Roman Waugh overplays his hand when it comes to the film's "blockbuster" scenes, and the third act of 'Greenland' devolves into a Roland Emmerich movie in order for the audience to be treated to a big finale of molten spume, toppled monoliths and cheap, cheesy effects.
Briskly paced and littered with jagged, realistic edges though it is, 'Greenland' ultimately imagines a very sentimental planetary extinction. Perhaps the highest compliment I can pay this film is that it's far better than the annual paint-by-numbers Gerard Butler movie that is inflicted upon the world.