“A family fights for its survival as a planet-killing comet races to Earth.”
That’s the first sentence in Greenland‘s logline, and I’ll be honest with you, my dearest readers: It didn’t inspire a whole lot of confidence in me. After all, we can remember that way-back summer of ’98, when Deep Impact and Armageddon slammed into theaters. Those movies also featured planet-killing comets, and they were the cinematic equivalent of getting whacked in the face with a sock filled with cow puckey. Plus, ol’ Gerard Butler’s mug on the posters doesn’t inspire a whole lotta confidence, either. His recent offerings–I’m looking right at the doody-poo Hunter Killer and Angel Has Fallen–are about as entertaining watching a Salad Shooter® infomercial in Esperanto. TL;DR: I started this movie with one of those long, ragged sighs people give when they’re about to start paying bills.
That’s why I’m pleased to inform you that Greenland is actually pretty damn good. Despite its otherworldly premise, the script stays grounded in reality. Characters say and do things that make sense. The action is relentlessly tense and exciting. Yup–I’m as surprised as you are.
The story is pretty straightforward: John Garrity (Gerard Butler), a structural engineer, visits his estranged wife, Allison (Morena Baccarin) and their young son (Roger Dale Floyd). Everyone has gathered at their house to watch the approach of Clarke, a cluster of comets that will provide a thrilling near-miss of Earth’s atmosphere. Unfortunately, some science dweeb forgot to carry the two, and Clarke starts thunking into major cities.
John gets an Emergency Alert that he and his family have been selected for a Dr. Strangelove bunker to preserve humanity. They scoop up a few belongings–including the boy’s insulin–and barrel away in the family van. They make their way to a Georgia Air Force base and try to board one of the departing planes. At the last moment, John is horrified to find the boy’s medicine has gone missing. He races back to the van, which results in the family separating. For most of the movie’s second act, they will face terrible obstacles to reunite.
That’s all I’m gonna give ya. And don’t get me wrong: Greenland doesn’t serve up any crazy plot twists. But, this is a propulsive, well-told story, and I don’t want to spoil it by blathering. With that said, let me tell you why I enjoyed movie more than I thought:
For starters, the filmmakers do a George Costanza and try the opposite choices made in Impact and Armageddon. Those movies were bombastic and hokey disaster flicks, replete with Bruce Willis’s flaring nostrils and Aerosmith dry-humping the Dolby Surround. Marquee stars floundered in cliché parts. Presidents and astronauts delivered sweaty, expository dialogue and stared at computer monitors. Apparently Billy Bob Thornton was in there somewhere. The only thing I can say for sure is that I didn’t care about anyone in either movie.
Greenland wisely keeps us on the ground level: Butler excels at playing the Everyman, the good-hearted lunk who struggles with events beyond him. Baccarin also does fine work as Allison, a quick-thinking woman determined to save her son at all costs. Floyd is more than the Cute Kid in Peril. He is a natural actor, and we believe every bit of his terror. This movie would’ve been a wet beach towel if we didn’t care about the family. Thankfully, all three actors keep us emotionally invested.
The suspense gets further enhanced by the effective use of CGI. Director Ric Roman Waugh tastefully dials back the special effects, and they perfectly serve the story. We see the comet in the distant sky. We hear the booms of impact. Grainy snippets of the disaster appear on the news. Otherwise, Waugh wisely puts it on our imagination to fill in the gaps, and nothing generates fear faster than what we can’t see. Greenland clearly didn’t have a huge budget, but it actually works in the film’s favor.
Aaron Sorkin once observed that his job was “to captivate you for however long I’ve asked for your attention.” Waugh and company combine an intelligent script and a refreshing sense of realism to do exactly that. I was hooked, and that doesn’t happen terribly often. Most disaster movies are catastrophes in every way you can measure, but this one gets just about everything right.
119 min. PG-13. On Demand, coming soon to HBOMax.