Large disasters tend to overshadow smaller ones. Or in the case of a looming global apocalypse, like the one in Greenland (2020), erase their relevance altogether.
Take the film’s hero John Garrity (Gerard Butler) for example, the Scotland-born Atlanta-based structural engineer currently in the marital doghouse for being unfaithful. He’s trying really hard (with some meager success) to make amends with his estranged American wife Allison (Morena Baccarin), who’s finally agreed to reconcile most likely for the benefit of Nathan (Roger Dale Floyd), their angelic, diabetic son. And then “Clarke” shows up.
No, Clarke isn’t a hunky new white collar schmuck hellbent on complicating things, but a humorlessly named planet-killing comet whose imminent arrival makes moot the kind of self-sabotaging, petty grievances that would normally dominate such a domestic melodrama. And since the sky is now literally on fire, good old John gets to be the hero, and potentially undo the emotional damage he’s inflicted.
Having been selected by the U.S. Government to receive shelter for his specific set of architectural skillsets, he fights through annoying traffic jams, opportunistic racists, flaming molten hailstorms and not one but two massive shockwaves to get his family to safety. Their destination? An underground Cold War-era military bunker in none other than, you guessed it, the titular Greenland.
Disaster films have always been about putting things in perspective, often through violent, awe-inspiring mass destruction, for both individuals and mankind as a species. Greenland is no different. But this particular entry into the genre, very efficiently directed by Ric Roman Waugh, wastes little time in pondering situational what-ifs. There’s no space for grand speeches about humanity’s worthiness. Just the terrifying here and now. Hesitancy breeds weakness, and the film adheres to this coda, adopting an instinctual, propulsive narrative momentum that never lets up.
The diegetic urgency stems from a common trope in the disaster genre: governmental unpreparedness and misinformation. Sound familiar? For weeks, major news outlets had been reporting that Clarke would be nothing more than a passing astronomical novelty, something to look up and see coming from the comfort of your own backyard. But this has just been a stalling tactic for the government to begin their clandestine evacuation.
Once the first major comet fragment makes impact decimating central Florida, John and his family learn of their special status and head for the nearest Air Force base. On site, the gears of Hollywood screenwriting separate father from mother/son, and send them on parallel trajectories in mirroring precarious situations that are beholden to the sordid details of societal breakdown.
Nothing too terrible is off the table. Child kidnapping. Looting. Mass riots. C-130s exploding on a runway tarmac swarming with desperate people. Fisticuffs with white nationalists inside the back of a moving truck. Hell, even an old woman in a wheelchair is singled out for a thankless death. It makes one pine for the simple pleasure of fighting off zombies.
In contrast to the chaos, Greenland presents our lily white heroes with two beacons of hope - a languishing military apparatus doing its best to save as many people as possible, even while the soldiers and officers themselves will be left to face certain death, and the goodwill of black and brown characters who exist solely to provide information, safety, and reassurance.
Waugh’s film is by no means progressive when it comes to bucking certain Hollywood stereotypes and problematic storytelling devices. But it is fascinating for how it refuses to dwell or linger on them, favoring instead a rushed, frenzied persistence that reveals just how privileged a white family can be even in the most dire of global scenarios.
I don’t want to talk too much about Greenland’s shortcomings because the film’s virtues are far more interesting, chiefly the way it depicts a realistic suddenness with which imminent doom is pushed upon the American public. Compare this to the slow motion nightmare of our current COVID-19 pandemic, and the American government’s criminally inept response to it, and Greenland feels less horrific by the minute.
Waugh and his screenwriters are quite sympathetic to those professionals tasked with orchestrating mass evacuations under extreme duress, not only from Clarke’s falling fragments but the selfish and scattered American populace who begin to rebel against the selection measures taken to ensure humanity’s survival.
In effect, Greenland is a dual cinematic fantasy that repositions a cheating husband as the heroic, unstoppable family man with a singular mission of survival, and in the process eliminates any need for governmental inspiration during a mass tragedy. Never once does this film cut away to a presidential or congressional address. There’s not enough time. Literally no one cares anymore. And those DC hacks have already fled the coop. All that’s left are the everyday civil servants and armed forces personnel who know they are going to die and are following orders anyways.
Clarke and it’s incoming hellfire is also the antithesis to COVID-19, a virus invisible to the naked eye. During much of Greenland, Gerard Butler’s character often looks up at the sky, witnessing the changing colors and vapor patterns which signal various stages of Earth’s demise. It’s an omnipresent reminder that no matter what decisions people make on Earth, it will be impossible to avoid the wrath raining down from above. Hollywood makes survival stories simplistic so even those viewers who refuse to wear masks and spread conspiracy theories can understand the stakes at play. If only those same people were as willing to listen to real life scientists.
Greenland might not be a “good film,” whatever the hell that even means, but it’s certainly one that made me question the tropes we normally associate with disaster films (and real life disasters in general). Almost radically, it presents the end of the world not as spectacle, but as a set of personal sacrifices, none of them pretty or easy to digest.
Near the beginning, John and his family are confronted by their panicked, doomed neighbors while trying to flee their suburban neighborhood. One woman forces them to stop, asking hysterically to save her young daughter. Most Hollywood blockbusters would make the decision for John, but Greenland gives him the power to be brutally pragmatic. After a brief altercation, they speed away.
I found this moment and many others true to a blistering and honest vision of American survivalism. It would be even more pronounced and prevalent in a true disaster scenario. In the world of Greenland and probably ours, compassion and empathy wouldn’t transcend beyond the bloodlines of family. But at least we’d see the end coming.
Greenland will be available to rent on VOD platforms Dec. 18.
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