2020 | PG-13 | starring Gerard Butler, Morena Baccarin, Scott Glenn| directed by Ric Roman Waugh | 1 hr 59 mins |
Forget slashers, clowns and zombies – few things are as existentially frightening as a planet-destroying asteroid barreling toward Earth while we all sit helplessly waiting to be snuffed out. While this was popularized in ra-ra action movies like Armageddon and Deep Impact, smaller movies like Seeking a Friend for the End of the World and Lars Von Trier’s Melancholia better capture the existential dread of facing mass extinction. Greenland makes an, at times valiant, swing at end-of-the-world dread, before ultimately collapsing into silliness and cliche.
John Garrity (Gerard Butler) is an architect with a shaky hand who, like everyone else on Earth, plans to light the grill and get in front of the TV and watch a comet named Clarke fly by the planet. However, as the asteroid gets closer scientists learn that it is a collection of rocks aimed directly at Earth, including a Extinction Level-sized one that will wipe out all life on Earth in 48 hours. John gets a secret message from Homeland Security that he, his estranged wife (Morena Baccarin) and son (Roger Dale Floyd) have been chosen for admittance to one of a few government bunkers designed to preserve mankind and start off on a perilous trek to stay together and beat the end of the world.
The first act of the film is not bad, as director Ric Roman Waugh (previously helming Butler in Angel has Fallen) captures the media sensation caused by the comet and the dreadful realization of the danger ahead of everyone. The movie nicely stays at the ground level, with no spaceship attempts to kill the comet or planes flying through collapsing skyscrapers. In reality, the end of the world would look like this: people sitting in an endless line of deadlocked cars on the interstate. The family is split up, at first, not by action set pieces, but small normal mistakes in the plan to escape.
Greenland then reveals itself to be a pretty strict, low-fi retread of the monstrously awful Roland Emmerich disaster movie 2012 where John Cusack and his horrible family push people out of the way to race callously toward self-preservation. Greenland is better than that – in fact, it’s better than a lot of Gerard Butler’s recent action output – in that it’s not so absurd that it doesn’t get the basics right. It gets the basics fine, just not much else. It plays the scenario straight and predictable with the family encountering it’s share of natural disasters, crazed humans and last second saves. The general problem with these type of global disaster movies is when they are focused on a small group of people’s unlikely survival. As Roger Ebert put it in a review of The Sum of All Fears, the movie allows us to imagine that we are the ones that will make it to the final reel instead of the much more realistic and unglamorous fate faced by billions of others. It rings hollow. A better disaster movie would widen the cast to show multiple fates as society collapses in the face of the end of the world.
The specific problem with Greenland, is how absolutely ridiculous some of the decisions are. Central to their complications is that the Garrity’s son is diabetic and is rejected by the government for entry into the bunker. That this wasn’t known ahead of time is one thing, but it leads to an insane mid-film sequence where a couple (including Hope Davis) decide to kidnap the boy and use him to get themselves in a bunker after hearing he can’t be admitted. Then in the third act, despite already being turned away, the Garrity’s decide, what the hell, let’s try it again and hope they let us in somehow this time. Let’s be honest, one of the more unbelievable scenes is Morena Baccarin standing on the side of the road trying to flag down cars. You’re telling me not one man stops to pick Morena Baccarin up? Come on.
The family out-races comet attacks, escapes on a single engine jet and races to a bunker before the end of the world. Not only is it 2012, the final scene is exactly 2012 beat for beat. Waugh is an action director, realizing the large scale disaster sequences well enough (“the sky is on fire”), but whose impulse is toward car chases and Butler going back to save people than the existential horror innate to the premise. I appreciated the smaller scale, but Greenland doesn’t do enough to elevate it above any other disaster movie.