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 loves smashing entire CGI cities to bits, as if that is what thrills the audience, but I like smaller-scale disasters, so 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 failing. Then interstellar debris from a passing comet start plummeting from the sky. 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. But something has gone terribly awry and the meteor in question hasn't disintegrated over the Atlantic Ocean as expected. An emergency alert lights up on John's phone - and no one else's - followed by a call with instructions to pack a bag and report to a nearby Air Force base for evacuation.
Some doomsday backup plan has just been activated by the government, and John and his family have made the cut. Their friends are understandably upset that their hosts were selected, but not them. Garrity and Allison shrug apologetically and get ready to leave without worrying much about them. Later, suckers.
Except, as the Garritys learn the hard way, their evacuation order was issued in error; they were supposed to have been taken off the list because of Nathan's diabetes. As for where the doomsday 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 is strangely similar to Lorene Scafaria's 'Seeking a Friend for the End of the World', that awful 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 an unstoppable killer asteroid was on its way but, to avert the worst stages of societal breakdown (à la 'These Final Hours'), they also lied and said that they had an extra two more weeks.
'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 and various other manly things. 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 and probably truer to reality.
Cinematographer Dana Gonzales has a good eye for imposing widescreen action, and Roman Waugh has a knack for end-time nail-biters and desperate scenarios, from riots to hijackers.
As I mentioned, disaster movies are one of my guilty pleasure genres, despite them often being unrealistic and campy. Yet, for a large chunk of time, 'Greenland' avoids that trend. This is despite it starring Gerard Butler, an actor whose name is synonymous with B-Movie action fluff. I was pleasantly surprised and satisfied with his performance as a beefy Scottish everyman. 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.
There is an appeal here that 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 huge edifices crumble from the safety of a cinema or their couch. In the 1950s, many of these movies used alien invasions to channel Cold War paranoia. In the '70s, big disaster blockbusters like 'The Towering Inferno' and 'The Poseidon Adventure' looked at the possibility of emerging technologies failing people.
The best parts of 'Greenland' are an exercise in building tension. They tap into the uncertain relationship between the people and the government, until a literal explosion causes the military to lose all semblance of control. There are surprisingly emotional moments, 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.
Through the chaos, 'Greenland' moves with commendable agility. Cinematographer Dana Gonzales has a good eye for imposing widescreen action, and Roman Waugh has a knack for end-time nail-biters and desperate scenarios, from riots to hijackers. When the meteor finally arrives, the impact VFX on the landscape is impressively detailed, with the different layers of pressure waves slapping the mountainous contours of the Earth's surface. Obviously, a lot of time and research went into that money shot.
An engaging, suspenseful story helps, but ultimately a disaster movie has to deliver the crash-bam-boom. Unfortunately, Roman Waugh overplays his hand a little 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 cheesy finale of molten spume and toppled monoliths.
Tightly paced and littered with realistic edges, 'Greenland' ultimately imagines a heartfelt 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 regularly inflicted upon the world.