Despite its name, Iceland is actually famous for not being covered in snow and ice. Whereas Greenland is almost entirely smothered by glaciers—its verdant nature disguising its frozen reality. In that at least GREENLAND (2020) is aptly named because for the most part, it’s a refugee drama masquerading as a disaster movie.
When the interstellar comet Clarke approaches Earth, early estimates suggesting it will not pose a significant threat to the Earth prove disastrously wrong. When John Garrity (Gerard Butler), a structural engineer living in Atlanta with his estranged wife Allison (Morena Baccarin) and their diabetic son Nathan receives a call advising him to report to a nearby military base for evacuation, the family must face abandoning their friends and neighbors in the faint hope of survival.
In the early scenes, it’s easy to detect a great deal of DEEP IMPACT’s (1998) DNA in the make-up of GREENLAND but while its nature isn’t in doubt, director Ric Roman Waugh and Producer/ Star Gerard Butler are determined to nurture this story in a very different way. The first sign this isn’t your usual by-the-numbers effects-driven disaster movie is that we aren’t introduced to a seemingly disparate set of characters who will inevitably, come the final act, come together in some sentimentally contrived way. Instead, we’re laser focused on the Garrity family, immediately and intimately involved in their crumbling family unit.
There’s real anguish in the sudden realisation that events are taking a very dark turn and the heartbreak as they face the immediate need to pack a bag and go, leaving everything behind and even abandoning their neighbours’ young children to their fate. It’s in the rapid collapse into gun-fuelled anarchy that the film feels strongest, drawing uneasy topical comparisons with its none-too-subtle exploration of immigration. In some ways, GREENLAND takes the typical nuclear family and forces them into the desperate, helpless role of refugees within their own country, and the portrayal of humanity red in tooth and claw is probably better explored here than in either DEEP IMPACT or ARMAGEDDON (1998).
It’s nominally Butler’s vehicle but he’s not actually on screen for significant periods and arguably the portions of the film where Morena Baccarin takes the lead are much more interesting and emotionally impactful. There’s a visceral authenticity to their escape, a series of fight-or-flight events that separates the family across the state, ratchetting up the tension while keeping the stakes intensely personal. It’s the small-scale human drama that makes GREENLAND and for all the talk of comets and impacts and global devastation, we don’t actually get to see much of it – a blessing given how poor some of the effects work is. Despite its kinetic pace, it’s a thought-provoking experience forcing you to reflect on what you’d do and how you’d behave if the end of the world was nigh, especially if you have children.
It could, and maybe should, have ended at the 90-minute mark, where the story reaches, if not a conclusion, then a satisfactory and potentially brave stopping point. Instead, there’s a further frenetic half an hour filled with lacklustre effects and a desperate race to the finish line along inconsistently busy roads to Canada and a flight to the safety of the eponymous sanctuary (which, ironically, used location filming in Iceland to double for Greenland).
GREENLAND belies its superficial popcorn disaster flick nature with an approach that’s surprisingly much closer to Indie movie sensibilities, with its focus on characters over carnage and a restrained and very human performance from Butler.