Greenland (U.S.A./U.K., 2020)

December 17, 2020
A movie review by James Berardinelli
Greenland Poster

Watching Greenland, I was reminded of how long it has been since a major studio has released an “old-school” disaster movie like this one. Perhaps the film might have worked better had it come out a year ago but this is an extraordinarily bad time to open something that deals with a mass extinction event. If there’s one thing most people don’t want to watch now, it’s a voyeuristic experience detailing the end of life on Earth as we know it. While there’s a wide gulf between a comet strike and a pandemic, experiencing the latter in reality has a strongly negative impact upon one’s ability to process the former as entertainment. By releasing the movie now, in the midst of a worldwide tragedy, STX Entertainment is displaying a shocking degree of tone-deafness.

As disaster movies go, Greenland is neither exceptionally good nor exceptionally bad. It postulates what might happen if, at some point in the near future, our planet has a too-near brush with a disintegrating comet whose smaller pieces wreak havoc and whose big chunk offers an ELE (extinction level event) not dissimilar to the one that wiped out T-Rex and the Cretaceous Boys. Thankfully, we aren’t subjected to an Armageddon-like scenario. Greenland’s approach is more realistic: the comet is coming, there’s not a damn thing we can do about it, so how might it be possible to preserve a sliver of humankind?

The premise might work for either (a) a miniseries, or (b) an art-house film that functions as a meditation on how society faces imminent death. Neither option, however, is within Greenland’s purview. Since the movie isn’t especially interested in addressing existential questions or (for that matter) providing a special effects-laden bird’s eye view of the catastrophe, the only thing left is to follow a small group of characters in what amounts to an apocalyptic race against time. In order to drag things out, they are separated and have to find one another before embarking on a long-shot sprint for safety. (Guess where that “safety” is located… Hint: consider the movie’s title.)

Gerard Butler is an action hero without much action. Okay, so he gets to kill one person but that’s more by accident than intent. For the most part, he spends a lot of time looking skyward and his “acting” equates to wide-eyed expressions as he gazes upon imaginary terrors. Butler’s resume would indicate that he’s at his best in the midst of a lot of violence and stunts. It’s a little surprising that director Ric Roman Waugh, who worked with Butler on Angel Has Fallen, saw the role of John Garrity as a match. More than anything else, the part requires a lot of running. Maybe he should have considered hiring Usain Bolt.

As the movie begins, we discover that good-guy John is involved in a bit of a marital discord with his wife, Allison (Morena Baccarin). It’s not clear whether the two are divorced or merely taking a break from one another, but they are on speaking terms and John is still there for his son, Nathan (Roger Dale Floyd). When it becomes clear that scientists have misjudged the threat posed by a near-Earth comet, the government puts out an alert for certain skilled people (John is a structural engineer who builds big buildings) to bring their families and head to a pre-determined military base where their identities can be verified and they can be whisked off to a super-secret bunker location. Of course, things don’t go smoothly. (If they did, there wouldn’t be much of a movie. Or, at least it would have been mercifully shorter. Greenland runs at least 30 minutes too long.)

The special effects are surprisingly un-special for a movie about worldwide destruction. Two other collision apocalypse movies, the aforementioned Armageddon and Deep Impact, boasted more impressive disaster sequences and they were made more than 20 years ago. One thing that Greenland has going for it is that it offers better visuals than 1979’s Meteor (although that stinker had Sean Connery in a role not typically mentioned in his career retrospective). The images we see in Greenland aren’t bad; they’re just few and far between. If I go to a movie featuring the end of the world, I expect to see it depicted a little more graphically. As silly as San Andreas was, it didn’t skimp on the disaster movie money shots.

In different times, it might have been possible to give Greenland a lukewarm recommendation for anyone looking for something frenetic and mindless. But the pandemic has twisted expectations and what might have been deemed “fun” has taken on a darker cast. Death on a mass scale only works as entertainment when it’s kept at arm’s length. The events chronicled in Greenland are (at least currently) science fiction but some of the implications hit too close to home for the movie to be effective in the way the filmmakers intended.

Greenland (U.S.A./U.K., 2020)

Director: Ric Roman Waugh
Cast: Gerard Butler, Morena Baccarin, Roger Dale Floyd, Scott Glenn
Home Release Date: 2021-02-09
Screenplay: Chris Sparling
Cinematography: Dana Gonzales
Music: David Buckley
U.S. Distributor: STX Entertainment
Run Time: 1:59
U.S. Release Date: 2020-12-18
MPAA Rating: "PG-13" (Disaster Sequences, Profanity, Violence)
Genre: Action/Adventure
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1