If director Ric Roman Waugh set out to make a stone-cold bummer, he succeeded.
The fault of not expecting Greenland to be a serious movie lies with me. When I see Gerard Butler in movies, I expect them to be kind of silly even when they’re trying to be serious like Olympus Has Fallen, which wants us to be very afraid of North Korea, but also Butler jams a knife into a guy’s skull. I expected Greenland to be like Butler’s previous disaster movie, the silly Geostorm, but that is not what director Ric Roman Waugh was going for. Instead, Greenland takes a disaster movie premise and plays it 100% straight with all the panic, fear, anxiety, and depression that entails. This is not the escapist apocalyptic fare we’ve gotten from directors like Roland Emmerich, but instead plays more like a borderline fatalistic road trip where one family goes through hell to reach shelter. I can’t fault Greenland for what it is, but watching humanity tear itself apart at the end of the world isn’t really the movie I needed after nine months of a pandemic.
John Garrity (Butler) is a structural engineering working in Atlanta. He’s excited to get home and spend some time with his son Nathan (Roger Dale Floyd) even though John is estranged from his wife and Nathan’s mother Allison (Morena Baccarin). John is hoping that a weekend cookout may start to mend some fences, but those plans are interrupted when a comet starts colliding with Earth. The comet is moving so fast and breaking apart at such speed that no one can prepare for where the next big impact will be, but the government expects that a planet-killing impact is coming in the next few days. Garrity and his family are randomly selected for shelter, but the journey to that shelter proves to be as dangerous as the comet with scared, frantic people tearing each other apart.
Greenland is not a fun movie, and it never intends to be. Despite the “death-from-above” cataclysm of it all, the film is not about big set pieces or grand heroics. Instead, it’s about a family reuniting under terrible circumstances and John trying to find a way to get them to a shelter where they might survive. What this means is seeing how weak the bonds of our fellowship are. For example, when John and his family get the alert that they’ve been randomly selected for shelter, they’re surrounded by neighbors who don’t get that alert. This leads to a scene with a mother begging and pleading for the Garrities to take her daughter to shelter and the Garrities knowing they can’t because the child will be turned away. The cold pragmatism at the heart of Greenland drives some incredibly bleak moments that make the film a painful watch.
I imagine if I had seen Greenland in a theater at a time when we weren’t suffering through real catastrophe on a global scale, I’d be more impressed with what Waugh has accomplished here. Rather than using the disaster genre for escapist fare, he’s created something more in line with dark visions of a dying Earth like Testament and Children of Men, although it never reaches the powerful highs and incisive nuances of those movies. Greenland is incredibly confident in putting its characters through the ringer and rarely setting aside space for heroism. But in this year, the strengths of Greenland make it feel more like a grind, and it becomes a movie I’ll be curious to revisit in several years. But in this moment, everything about the film felt like too much.
And no one is really to blame for that. The film gets released when it gets released, and the script was presumably written well before the pandemic hit. Waugh wanted to make a straight disaster movie devoid of any humor, and he succeeded. Not all disaster movies need to be fun. They’re allowed to dive into the disturbing and bitter waters of what would probably happen if humanity were facing its last days on Earth. Sure, it’s still a Hollywood movie where some kind of hope will be restored, but it’s a tough, long road to get to those hopeful moments, and after a year like 2020, I wasn’t really in a place to walk it.
Seth Rogen will produce and likely co-star as the man who stole the infamous tape.
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