Movies are artifacts of the world in which they are made, and that includes the timing of their release. It may not be fair to judge Ric Roman Waugh's Greenland for being a disaster movie about the potential end of the world for being released during a pandemic – though the planned theatrical release was notably shifted to a VOD one for obvious reasons. The fact that both wildfires and hurricanes were battering different parts of the nation during the films initial release window likely didn't help the situation.
In Greenland, John Garrity (Gerard Butler) is a structural engineer living in Georgia. He’s in the process of moving back in with his wife Allison (Morena Baccarin) and son Nathan (Roger Dale Floyd) after the couple has been having marital troubles, and he returns home on the eve of a party where the plan is to watch a comet dubbed Clarke, which is set to make the closest pass by Earth of any celestial object in history. It's a thing worth celebrating... before everything goes horribly wrong.
Unfortunately, somebody did the math wrong and what is expected to be a harmless splash down of a comet fragment in the ocean turns out to be the first of many continental collisions, causing widespread destruction and panic around the world. Luckily, John has been selected (apparently due to a combination of having valuable skills, and also luck) to take his family to a bunker where it’s believed they’ll be able to wait out the catastrophe. While the location of the bunkers are classified, the rumor is that they’re located in the country of Greenland.
Of course, as one might expect, the path from danger to safety is not a straight line, and John and his family must survive one trial after another in order to make it from their home to the bunker, assuming it even really exists. Everybody at the party finds out that John, Allison, and Nathan are going to be safe via what is obviously the worst planned notification process that anybody could possibly come up with. And the roads are flooded with people who simply don't know what else to do. Try to make it to see family one last time? Look for a miraculous solution that's maybe out there somewhere?
Everything about the first act of Greenland is stupid. Literally everything.
Greenland is a pretty straight forward disaster movie on paper. I spent most of the first act wondering if I’d somehow already seen this movie before, I think I was confusing it with Geostorm, another global disaster movie starring Gerard Butler. It’s fairly easy to get distracted by thoughts like this during the first act, because the first act is pretty dumb. Everything about the initial premise feels like it’s just meant to be the paper-thin excuse necessary to blow shit up with comet fragments for 90 minutes, which would be fine as far as that goes. Though the blowing up of shit isn't all that impressive on its own.
It's because of this that it’s sort of shocking to have the comet be essentially forgotten about for the entire second act of the movie. Instead, we get a remarkably solid character drama where John and Allison have to navigate the world, now gone completely off the rails since everybody is probably about to die anyway. The tension is strong. In some places it’s absolutely heartbreaking. When the movie forgets the comets and gets to be about the people, the good and the bad, it becomes much more relatable.
When Greenland is about characters and not comets, it works surprisingly well.
A lot of it is still fairly predictable to be sure, but it all works. You can finally start to connect with the characters on an emotional level once the danger shrinks from “global extinction” to “other people are basically monsters.” It's all stuff we've seen before, sure, but that's because it tends to work. Nobody's going to win an Oscar for Greenland, but nobody is phoning it in either. Well, maybe Scott Glenn, who makes a brief appearance just to "be Scott Glenn" for 15 minutes; but he's Scott Glenn so we'll let it slide.
All that tension is then resolved... and somehow the movie still has 30 minutes left to run. It honestly feels like ever screenwriter Chris Sparling wasn’t sure what to do with the final act of the movie as the story shifts back to hiding from fiery debris falling from the sky and all the tension from the middle of the movie is lost in the end of the world disaster porn (which I sort of figured was going to be the whole film at the outset). Greenland limps to the finish line with a finale that wouldn’t have been so frustrating if the movie hadn’t shown itself capable of more.
I’m not sure if anybody is the right audience for movies about the end of the world right now – many of us have access to Twitter, after all. And yet, even if an over the top disaster movie is what you feel you want to watch, I’m still not sure Greenland fits the bill. If you’re looking for cities exploding into dust in massive craters, you won’t see as much of that as you might think.
Greenland has some solid stuff at its core, but its bookended by such dumb that it’s hard to believe all the pieces were meant to fit together in the same movie. More importantly, these pieces feel like they were made for such different audiences it’s hard to image anybody actually enjoying the whole thing.
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