It’s the end of the world as we know it, but how does everybody feel? This article is about who stepped up (or not) in Greenland and why, and it’s naturally very spoilery up to and including the ending, so if you’re just after my 4-star review it’s here.
Is Greenland a disaster movie? A family drama? A coincidental COVID-19 allegory? If I was still religious I’d say it was The Pilgrim’s Progress updated for a modern audience. Accidentally separated from his wife Ali and son Nathan, John Garrity wanders America with his burden of guilt (he had an affair with someone which nearly destroyed his marriage, and my money is on lingering-looks Deb from their comet party), coming face to face with the good, the bad and the ugly – before reaching salvation through getting his family to safety in the form of a recommissioned nuclear bunker in Greenland.
Watching John walking the streets – past a church choir singing Amazing Grace, and a rooftop party where every distant burning fragment falling through the atmosphere is greeted with whoops, cheers and another swig of beer – it’s a journey via every human reaction.
Comets are a great leveller, in every sense. Whereas with COVID-19 we all found ourselves in the same storm but in different boats, in Greenland wealth won’t save you unless you have your own mega-bunker. In the aftermath the people needed to rebuild will be nurses and engineers, not billionaires good at dismantling businesses and avoiding taxes.
Greenland is about how people react in a crisis (and not just any crisis), though for John it’s also about redemption after screwing up so badly. It felt pretty believable to me, that we’d mostly be abandoned by governments and that individuals would mostly show kindness as the doomsday clock ticked down (something COVID has already laid bare, as communities came together to make sure shielding neighbours got their shopping).
Really, if you were weighing up whether to be nice or not, you might as well, once there’s nothing you can do to give your own family an edge in the survival stakes. What happens in Greenland shows that as soon as you have a chance, self-interest kicks in again – but when we’re all doomed, all in this together, people pitch in. It’s a mixed message, though probably an accurate one.
The Garritys come up against many examples of human kindness (and a few of self-interest) after they fail to get away on their rescue plane, and that wave of altruism builds as Clarke’s impact approaches.
John Garrity has been selected with his family for shelter because he’s a structural engineer, and the post-Clarke world will need people who can build. But though they get to the air force base with their Q-codes and identity wristbands, they discover Nathan’s insulin has been left in their car. John goes back for it, but in the meantime Ali and Nathan are told they can’t board the plane to Greenland because of Nathan’s diabetes. No one with a chronic condition is being allowed on.
A harassed officer eventually tries to help, despite her own family not being selected. She attempts to locate John, but they can’t find him on a plane. Ali and Nathan are forced to leave, and go back to the car, where Ali leaves a note for John saying they are heading to her dad Dale’s house in Kentucky. First they have to venture into a pharmacy for Nathan’s insulin though, and when it fills with looters firing guns, one teen from the gang silently helps them up so they can escape.
In the car park Ali asks a couple going north if they can get a lift part way. Judy and Ralph are an example of what happens when someone resigned to their fate then realises they might have a way out. They are happy to help Ali and Nathan, until they realise the two have the identity bracelets required to get into a shelter. Ralph kicks a screaming Ali out of the car and they kidnap Nathan, claiming it’s so they can get the boy to safety. It doesn’t work – once at an air force base Nathan tells a soldier he’s been kidnapped – but it does ask a question of people’s altruism and when it is cast aside.
A distraught Ali is picked up by a group of people who drive her to the same base, and she is reunited with Nathan, helped by a volunteer and then a doctor who not only packs up some medical supplies for Nathan but also gets them a lift on a military bus to near Dale’s. It’s another moment that renews everyone’s faith in human nature; nearly everyone they meet at this point is going to die.
And what of John? After getting Nathan’s insulin from the car, he makes it back and actually boards one of the planes. His texts to Ali aren’t sending, but he assumes they’re on a different plane, until another passenger asks how he boarded with that medication, as they’re not letting anyone on with a chronic condition.
John immediately tries to get off the plane, though as he does so the perimeter fences are breached by the crowds outside, who rush the runway as soldiers start shooting. (Seen from above they look like a swarm or zombie horde, driven by instinct, and instinct prizes self-preservation.) A leaking fuel hose explodes, taking out several planes and presumably hundreds of people.
Escaping the inferno, he heads back to their car and finds a note from Ali explaining that she and Nathan are heading to her dad’s.
Coming across a truck bound for Canada, he is offered a lift part-way. A young man, Colin, tells him about flights from Osgoode in Canada to Greenland – they’ve been tracking the military planes to that location. Colin is a good man who has previously screwed up; his mum has been selected for a bunker place but he hasn’t spoken to her in years. Then another passenger demands John’s bracelet and wants to know where he is from. To him, the United States shouldn’t be saving a Scot (another accidental COVID allegory, though it’s also been a reaction to dangerous events since time immemorial). John refuses to give him the bracelet, and in the ensuing fight the truck crashes.
Colin is thrown from it and killed but the man fights John, who kills him with a hammer in the head (I did tell you he stabbed someone in the head!)
The next day John finds an empty house and cleans himself up while watching news reports on TV. The world is in chaos but still firefighters are trying to put out the flames. He takes the car from the driveway, and drives to Dale’s house. Then Ali calls, having been dropped off with Nathan at a nearby store, and the family is reunited.
John explains about Osgoode but Dale refuses to go; he’s happy to die at home. He gives John his truck and a gun, and the family leaves for Canada. En route they have to shelter under a bridge from an onslaught of molten rocks falling from the sky; it’s here that John and another man drag an unconscious driver from his burning car. Later he and Ali reminisce about their life together and Ali tells him she is where she wants to be.
They make it through the deserted Canadian border, and get to the airport just as a plane takes off. There’s one more taxiing so John drives onto the runway and stops in front of it. They plead with the pilot to take them and he grudgingly agrees. On board people are calm and kind, moving up to make room, while someone brings a first aid kit for John’s burns.
They get to Greenland just as a meter shower hits, and the plane crash-lands. One pilot is killed and the other badly injured – when John goes to help him he tells John to go, a sacrifice we’ve been building to. The radio orders all planes to land as the biggest chunk of Clarke will be hitting any minute.
John has seen a final plane landing nearby and leads the passengers the mile or so to the bunkers. Soldiers spot them and take them to the bunkers in open trucks, where they are rushed at speed down into the complex. The doors are closed and everyone is told to brace for impact.
So the family survives. Nathan was always going to – this isn’t some doom-laden Russian five hour epic – though I did wonder while watching it if John would be killed, as part of his ultimate redemption arc.
John and Ali have also rekindled their love for each other on their desperate trek to safety, which is a good thing as there are far fewer potential partners alive once they emerge from the Greenland bomb shelter nine months on.
Is that nine months deliberate? What they find when the doors are opened is Earth reborn. Yes it’s a grey, ashy planet, but then two birds flutter into view, tweeting madly. John is nodding to himself, presumably planning where he can build the first post-apocalyptic skyscraper.
Nearly everyone else is dead. Plenty of people went out on a high note, even if hardly anyone will be around to remember how it ended: that in a world where people documented everything publicly and fished for online compliments, humanity mostly ended up being good for goodness’ sake and not for praise or publicity.
When the doors open we also hear the Greenland station on the radio, asking for others to respond, and gradually other stations come in: Helsinki, Sydney, Beruit, Kathmandu, Moscow, Delhi…
And I’m going to say right now, I can see a sequel on the (smoky) horizon. Remember when John takes a car from the driveway of the empty house and leaves a note saying he’ll bring it back if he survives? Maybe part 2 (called something like Greenland: Green Shoots) could be a road trip across a post-apocalyptic America, dropping off the family saloon.
There’s now a UK release date: 5 February 2021, on Prime Video.