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Greenland: Character Driven Disaster Movie

Greenland focuses on character to effectively humanize the stakes of its apocalyptic asteroid action beats.

When you think of disaster movies in 2020, your mind must inevitably wander to the oeuvre of Roland Emmerich.  From Independence Day to 2012, the man created a modern template for big budget disaster epics iterating on the template of 70s genre classics like The Towering Inferno, The Poseidon Adventure, and Airport.  Emmerich did his best to pepper the time between opening salvo of doom and climatic heroic climax with quippy banter between highly archetypical characters.  Nearly every other disaster movie of recent vintage from The Perfect Storm to San Andreas follows some version of the Emmerich formula.

What disaster movies infrequently do is focus on the human scale of such epic tragedies.  The reason is obvious: these sorts of movies are expensive, and blockbusters that don’t scratch a happy itch with audience members tend not to make a ton of money.  Greenland leans into the more personal, human elements of the story.  The potential end of the world by asteroid strike is rendered as something closer to tragedy than blockbuster entertainment usually allows.

The decision to tightly focus on one family’s effort to survive gives the film a window into how society crumbles in the fact of pending disaster.  The parallels to 2020 are obvious and glaring – Greenland joins the long list of films who have been made accidentally more relevant by the global realities of the last year. Beyond that, however, the focus benefits the film. Earlier “asteroid potentially ends life on Earth” films have focused on the heroic efforts to stop the asteroid in space (Armageddon) or big political figures attempting to control the situation (Deep Impact).

Greenland seems inspired by the success of Zombie films and shows in recent years.  While there are no flesh-eating monsters, there is the creeping and ever-increasing tension of pending mortality.  While our protagonist family seeks shelter from an “Extinction Level Event,” their journey is constantly distracted by the deterioration of society.  A venture into a drug store becomes an exercise in survival; an escape from a military base uses visual cues lifted from modern horror classics like I Am Legend.

loud and clear reviews greenland gerard butler
Gerard Butler stars in GREENLAND (STXfilms)

At the core of the film are Gerard Butler (300) and Morena Baccarin (Serenity).  I will admit to not having been a huge fan of Butler’s recent output, but here he seems more human than I can ever recall from him.  Worn, haggard, and a bit overweight, Butler feels like a suburban dad started to crack under the tension of a crumbling marriage.  Baccarin is given more to do than the typical wife character in the genre.  Together, the two evince a real humanity, and a real sense of shared affection for their son (played ably by Roger Dale Floyd, of Doctor Sleep).  It’s rare to see this sort of commitment to character in the genre, and it pays off.

I was surprised how many times Greenland moved me. Neighbors pleas to flee with the protagonist family – they’ve been selected to be flown to shelter because of Butler’s character’s engineering skills – are played as realistically and straight-faced as possible.  The family’s emotion over their privileged position gives the film significant emotional heft.  Butler and Baccarin’s good performances are paid off by a surprisingly emotional denouement. It’s no spoiler to say that Greenland’s climax is more focused on emotional stakes than apocalyptic danger.

It’s not to say there’s no action or big epic disaster stuff here.  There’s the obligatory destruction of cities, fight scenes, and explosions the genre requires including a harrowing sequence as the family attempt to drive away from a meteor shower. But by largely keeping the camera on Butler or Baccarin, the action becomes more personalized and feels like a world crumbling around a family, instead of the whole person for the film. I really did not care for director Ric Roman Waugh’s prior collaboration with Gerard Butler (Angel Has Fallen). It felt like a budget action release in the worst ways with editing that seemed to undercut the action on screen.  But here, Waugh has found a tighter focus and a calmer hand. The focus on character works for him.

One parting thought – when good things happen in Greenland ,it ends up feeling impactful. The small choice to provide a bit of extra insulin to a diabetic by a nurse, or a soldier who listens to the pleas of a child feel like shining blasts of humanity in the face of disaster. It’s impossible to ignore the parallels to the essential workers and medical personnel who risked their own lives and those of their families in the treatment of COVID-19. It’s Waugh’s ability to undercut all of the chaos with grace notes of generosity that is perhaps the film’s strongest tonal beat and the greatest reason for its emotional success. The focus on humanity helps Greenland stand as one of the best disaster movies of recent vintage.

Greenland is available on demand everywhere from December 18, 2020.

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