Film: Greenland

Whose brilliant idea was it to release an end-of-the-world disaster film in 2020? Well, evidently it was the makers of Greenland (2020), and perhaps they’re onto something because here I am watching it. I suspect this recent surge of interest of disaster flicks isn’t entirely healthy, but I guess there’s something to be said for having your worldview reinforced.

As Greenland begins, the Earth is anticipating the arrival of a comet, expected to pass close to the planet and create an impressive light show. The cosmic event is just background noise to John Garrity (Gerard Butler), an Atlanta-based structural engineer in the construction industry. John’s marriage is crumbling, but that doesn’t stop him from joining his wife Allison (Morena Baccarin) and son Nathan (Roger Dale Floyd) in time to put on a picnic for some neighborhood friends. The party is quickly scuttled when a massive chunk of the comet flattens Tampa, Florida, sending shockwaves across the world. When John and his family are summoned to a military base as part of a presidential alert, it quickly becomes clear the comet’s many fragments are expected to do even more damage. The government is selectively relocating chosen professionals and their families to a remote shelter in a desperate bit to ride out a planet-killing impact and save humanity. What follows is a frantic journey, as John and Allison struggle to save themselves—and their marriage.

There’s a certain compelling energy to Greenland, which possesses many of the effective elements of the disaster genre: eye-opening action, frantic ethical dilemmas, a mix of inspiring heroism and shameful self-interest, and of course the high drama of the survival tale. Although their characters are quite flimsy, both Baccarin (as usual) and Butler are better than what’s on the page, effectively selling the Garritys’ strained family dynamic. While the logistics of the scenario are suspect, they’re entertainingly realized visually. Alas, something is missing: a point of view, perhaps? Films about the collapse of civilization usually have a few things to say about the world they’re destroying. Greenland is content merely to remind us that humans gotta human: in a crisis, some people will turn viciously against one another, while others will show remarkable kindness. It’s not exactly a fresh perspective, and the added metaphorical dimension—the world is ending, the marriage is ending, get it?—doesn’t add any depth. In the end, for me the film scores impact points for how it effectively, if accidentally, captures the emotional disarray of surviving the year of its release. The film may be titled Greenland, but to me it read as a document of American behavior, especially in a crisis: individualistic, entitled, occasionally generous, heartlessly elitist, and collectively ugly. I’d feel better about the film if I thought its critique were deliberate, but I suspect the reality—also rather American—is that the film is just flashy, impressive shallowness.

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