As a comet heads to Earth, a family tries to make their way to safety in Greenland.
Despite the early Greenland trailers heralding something out of the ’90s (and how many of us expected Gerard Butler to stab the comet in the head before telling it to “go back to Alpha fucking Centauri”?) the film itself is much better and much more thoughtful, a character study of individuals and the populace as a whole.
Absolutely not a bombastic disaster movie, this is riveting apocalyptic family drama, though not one you’d want to watch with the family (its early fart jokes notwithstanding).
Actually, come to think of it he does stab someone in the head – possibly an in-joke – though that’s more about what an impending cataclysm can do to one’s psyche when one’s family is threatened.
Butler is structural engineer John Garrity, newly returned to the family home after his wife Allison (Morena Baccarin) threw him out. His relationship with her is now one of nails-down-a-blackboard awkwardness, as they try to rebuild family life for their 7 year old son Nathan (Roger Dale Floyd).
John is at the supermarket with Nathan (something he agreed to somewhat tetchily as it got in the way of his barbecuing), buying supplies for a party they’re hosting for neighbouring families, where they’re going to watch bits of Comet Clarke fall harmlessly into the sea on TV.
Except that while shopping John gets a government message on his phone that he, his wife and son have been selected for emergency shelter – and when he gets home they watch the comet fragment fall not into the sea but on Florida. The message flashes up again, this time on the Garritys’ TV, so all the neighbours see it and wonder why they didn’t get one.
The Garritys have to drive to an air force base nearby with a few bags, knowing the neighbours aren’t going to be saved, and the neighbours know it too as their friend Deb screams at John and Ali to take her daughter; something they can’t do as without the right Q-code she won’t be allowed on the plane.
Greenland looks at how and why people do or don’t step up in an emergency, an emergency where most of them will die anyway. The comet is heralding an Extinction Level Event (I remember hearing about ELE for the first time in 1998’s Deep Impact). As more fragments bombard the planet, one firefighter explains on TV: “we’re just trying to keep up. And have it in the back of our head that tomorrow it’s all gonna be for nothing.”
While that’s nice for humanity’s humanity, the almost unfathomable scale of the impending disaster makes Greenland a gloomy, almost dispiriting experience for the first half of its runtime, as word gets out that this is the big one and most people are going to die.
It’s not looking good for the Garritys either, who for various reasons end up not on their rescue plane, but separated and trying to make contact while making for Ali’s dad’s house in Kentucky.
The darkness lifts later, even though we still don’t know if they will all survive, as the action moves away from crowds of terrified and desperate rioters to the deceptive calm of rural America.
Bar some twee flashbacks, Greenland sidesteps any earnestness in favour of pit-of-stomach levels of tension and an almost unbearable sense of sadness. It also mostly skirts around black humour, apart from when director Ric Roman Waugh shows us people just missing their rescue plane.
The goodness that flows from individuals is so heartening because it is often aimed at strangers they will never see again: Colin, a young man John meets in a truck who tells him about the Greenland bunkers and a possible route there; a calm and smiling nurse in a makeshift hospital tent finding Ali and Nathan medication and a lift. There are others too, though it never feels as if we’re being lectured on how to die nicely in an apocalypse.
For John this is a chance to earn forgiveness (including from himself) for how he’s treated his wife, as well as a primal urge to get his family to safety. An attempt to pull an unconscious man from a burning car is frenzied; his son’s diabetes medication, which John goes back for, almost a talisman.
Some cleave to the rules, a blinkered belief that chaos will be momentarily held at bay. After stealing a car from a driveway, John leaves a note in the empty house that if he survives he’ll return it.
Others are less concerned. News shows start broadcasting footage of the top secret Greenland bunkers, a “here’s what you would’ve won,” for most of the populace, and it’s D-Day for the apocalyptic God-botherers.
Baccarin is excellent as Ali, and probably 60% of the screen time is hers. Her cries for her son – the primeval screams of motherhood – are heartbreaking and all-too believable.
Butler is impressive as a man trying to earn his redemption, and find a safe haven for his wife and child, as the clock ticks inexorably down – and it’s much easier to focus on his acting now Greenland has shown us what to do with his American-Scottish accent. Finally he’s playing a Scot who moved to America. It’s even a plot point, when an American aggressively questions why John should be saved by the US.
Gerard Butler films are particularly good at casting character actors to play prickly older relatives. Last year it was Nicke Nolte in Angel Has Fallen, this time Scott Glenn is Ali’s father Dale, still angry at his son-in-law.
And while I often despair of irritating child actors (I know, it’s not their fault) Floyd is very good as Nathan, a child thrust into a terrifying situation devoid of rules and where it’s not clear his parents can save him.
Greenland has already been out on a big screen across Europe, though it works perfectly well on TV as it’s not really about special effects. While the red and orange sky, dotted with burning warhead-like space rocks, becomes a familiar backdrop, a good chunk of the unfolding disaster is relayed via news reports, livestreams and radio shows (plus the obligatory shots of burnt-out national landmarks).
It’s very well-paced, which makes the bleakness bearable, though maybe afterwards go outside and watch the birds.
Greenland is available on premium video on demand (PVOD) in the US now, and on Prime Video in the UK on 5 February.