Director: Ric Roman Waugh
Screenwriter: Chris Sparling
Starring: Gerard Butler, Morena Baccarin, Roger Dale Floyd, Scott Glenn
Well made extinction event movies come around so infrequently that the 1990s’ trio of blockbuster hits Independence Day, Armageddon and Deep Impact remain fondly remembered even in spite of middling reviews and a number of laughable moments. Since the turn of the century there have been countless attempts at capturing the same magic formula of audience dread and enjoyment that these films seemed to miraculously capture, with a multitude of B-Movie style rip-offs including Independence Day’s own sequel Independence Day: Resurgence hitting our cinema screens (and more often our supermarkets’ straight-to-DVD piles), the last major hit from the genre being Roland Emmerich’s The Day After Tomorrow all the way back in 2004. Critical dud 2012 aside, the genre seems to have evolved from far off extra-terrestrial threats into those closer to home, most notably the zombie apocalypses of 28 Days Later, I Am Legend and World War Z, but delayed 2021 release Greenland may have just swung things back in the direction of what we now perceive to be 90s classics of the mainstream film variety, this new blockbuster from Snitch (2013) and Angel Has Fallen (2019) director Ric Roman Waugh unlikely to become the cultural phenomenon of the films listed above due to a delayed direct-to-streaming release necessitated by the real-world’s apocalyptic events, but it may be remembered just as fondly.
The formula for this throwback event film is simple and to the book. The genre conventions expected of an apocalyptic blockbuster are all there – the father figure going to extraordinary lengths to prove his worth to his family, the many tests of morality and mortality that come with the threat of mass extinction, the moments of peril caused by momentary indecision or pre-ordained conditions, the CG-fuelled thrills of otherworldly sights – yet through a combination of close to twenty years of distance between now and the movies that became so formulaic they became boring, and some truly great attention to detail, Greenland surpasses the basement level expectations of films of its type. We’re not getting anything necessarily new here, but we are getting something genuinely quite good.
Gerard Butler, an actor who has developed a reputation as a leading man of many low budget and often critically maligned actioners over the past decade or so, leads Greenland as John Garrity, a somewhat estranged husband to Allison (Morena Baccarin) and father to Nathan (Roger Dale Floyd), who receives an emergency call from the US government informing him that he and his young family have been selected for governmental relocation to emergency sheltering in the midst of a comet impact. But, with the world in a panic and the family battling numerous issues, the relatively simple act of boarding a plane proves more difficult than it may first seem, and a series of events unravel in which the family is pushed to the brink of existence.
Greenland’s effective CGI and well-made news broadcasts paint an unpretty picture of apocalyptic earth and work well to raise the stakes at the heart of this film, but the true triumph of Greenland’s relatability and effectiveness comes in writer Chris Sparling’s attention to detail. Sparling’s work ensures each character has their own autonomy, and that through its exploration of a number of moral dilemmas and existential ideas the piece never loses sight of the family at its heart, or the relatability it hopes for each of us to feel towards the characters going through such ordeals. Vitally, the screenplay also turns away from the genre tropes of comedy sidekicks and witty one-liners, instead offering an earnest take on the genre more in line with 70s blockbusters like The Towering Inferno. It’s a tone that some may describe as “self-serious”, but it works tremendously well to ignite thoughts such as ‘what would I do in this situation?’, and when combined with the autonomy of the characters, some strong leading performances and an almost 100% success record in having the characters make logical decisions, each person in this film feels real, and thus the stakes are raised exponentially.
Director Ric Roman Waugh leaves his own indelible mark on the quality of the film by centring all of its action on his three protagonists, never stretching to cover people outside of the core group (such as the president – another trope of such films) and focusing in on the most important part of Sparling’s screenplay: the humanity. Small moments become key in Waugh’s presentation, as actors in smaller roles are given just a split second longer than they’d get in a lesser film to convince us of their characters’ inherent goodness. And it’s “goodness” that is so vital to Greenland‘s success as a storytelling device, because it’s humanity’s capability to care for one another that is perhaps our most celebrated skill, and is proven vital in our moments of deepest division and seemingly insurmountable hurdles. It is shown here through army officers volunteering to save lives at the brink of their own deaths, nurses reassuring parents that they can get medication, a helping hand from a stranger or an admission of love, and it plays very much as a stance opposing the growing divisions of the Trumpian United States it was intended to be released in. In this way, the film not only strikes a chord emotionally but it becomes more than a throwback hit, it becomes a timely and relevant release.
There are moments in Greenland where silly things happen or the story branches off into something tangential, but each seem to be the result of a genuine intention to explore what any given character would do in the moment, and thus each can be forgiven. Like the 90s’ blockbuster fare that has become so memorable, this film isn’t perfect – it doesn’t rewrite the formula of the genre or advance the blockbuster sphere – but there is a truth to it, an accuracy to its presentation of the worst and best of us in moments of trauma and strife, and it is this truth that sees Greenland excel as a product of its genre and its time.
So far as extinction event movies go, there may be more memorable films and certainly more culturally relevant ones, but Greenland has just quietly announced itself amongst the genre’s best, and for that reason it’s an unmissable event in its own right.