Gerard Butler plays an engineer who must lead his family to shelter in this gripping and surprisingly restrained take on the apocalypse
Gerard Butler has made a career out of running away from impending doom: bullets, missiles, the inevitable fallout of global warming. The law of averages suggested that one of these movies eventually had to be good. Greenland, the new film from director Ric Roman Waugh, is the long-awaited exception: a disaster flick that is – at least from a production standpoint – largely free of disaster. With less of an emphasis on overblown CGI excess than you might expect from a Butler film, it delivers a surprisingly sensitive and gripping family drama without sacrificing any of the thrills.
Butler – in his best role in years – plays a structural engineer named John Garrity, who one day receives a strange message on his phone directing him to a remote army base. There's a comet heading towards Earth, see, and John, his wife (Morena Baccarin), and their son (Roger Dale Floyd) have been chosen as part of a select few to take refuge in specially designed bunkers. At that moment, Florida is wiped from the face of the Earth – with another comet set to hit in 48 hours.
The fact we're dealing with not just one comet, but several, hours apart, grants a simple but effective variation on a plot we've seen played out a dozen times before. More interesting is how Greenland makes a point to minimalize the usual scenes of city-wide destruction, instead keeping us on the ground with the Garritys as they're separated and reunited over several days. In these street-level scenes there's a clear influence of Spielberg's War of the Worlds, the film less about the destruction of the planet as it is the destruction of one family's sense of order. Characters are thinly drawn, but relatable in their simplicity – surrogates for anyone watching and wondering how they'd react in the same situation. Butler isn't in full-on invincible hero mode, either. He's just a normal guy, scrambling to survive. Elsewhere, the film is peppered with small acts of kindness that help to differentiate it from more cynical movies made in this vein.
Greenland's ultimately optimistic view of humanity doesn't mean it shies away from the sort of desperate and disturbing moments you'd expect to find at the end of the world. It absolutely delivers on the big action front, but Waugh takes his time to ratchet up the tension with more intimate set-pieces, too, resulting in scenes of separation – an insulin run in the first act, a kidnapping in the second – that are genuinely uncomfortable and deeply felt. And while the film doesn't completely subvert genre expectations (there are plenty of traffic jam sequences), it takes just enough left-field turns to keep on surprising you.
Modern disaster movies have earned a reputation for being stupid and overblown, characters lost amongst the endless CG, less emphasis on the individual plight and more on the spectacle of mass destruction. Greenland is proof it's possible to deliver on all the promises of the disaster movie without losing sight of the human beings who inhabit them.
Greenland is now streaming on Prime Video.Where to watch