Big, world-ending disaster movies typically range from Roland Emmerich’s Independence Day (1996) to Roland Emmerich’s 2012 (2009) to Roland Emmerich’s post-2012 career, but sometimes it’s the smaller, quieter apocalypses that leave a more lasting mark. Think 1985’s The Quiet Earth or 2013’s brilliant These Final Hours, for example. The latest film to take target on humankind goes the latter route, and while Greenland delivers some CG carnage it’s the intensely human terrors that make it a destination worth visiting.
John Garrity (Gerard Butler) is a structural engineer, but his most important project is rebuilding the relationship with his wife Allison (Morena Baccarin) and son Nathan (Roger Dale Floyd). He might just be out of time, though, as a comet is speeding toward Earth destined to put on a spectacular light show. While the media suggests a harmless display in the sky, the U.S. government knows the truth — the comet’s shards will be striking the surface, causing massive destruction, and effectively ending human civilization. John and his family are picked for placement in a remote shelter, but their journey to safety becomes a fight for survival against panicked people, government regulations, and large chunks of space rock.
Greenland delivers end of the world thrills while keeping the bulk of that epic destruction off screen, and its focus on the individuals instead works to create an intensity and terror that last longer than anything effects could muster. Director Ric Roman Waugh and writer Chris Sparling blow things up here and there, but it’s the very human fear of losing loved ones that stands front and center. Brutal violence, cruel acts of desperation, and the wavering hope that none of it will be enough are all the emotional destruction the film needs.
Butler is no stranger to fighting space debris, but while Geostorm (2017) goes the shock and awe route with CG destruction he’s tasked with far more intense battles here. The three of them make it to their flight to safety soon enough, but the harrowing journey there pales beside what comes next as government rules and terrified mobs see the family separated, terrorized, and tested again and again in their quest for reunion and safety. Butler does good work here, inconsistent accent aside, and viewers buy easily into his attempted restraint and seemingly hopeless desperation. (A brief exchange regarding his weight is especially entertaining despite its seriousness…)
Baccarin is even more of a standout, though, as she’s tasked with nearly as much running around and emotional suffering. One sequence sees would be samaritans instead abduct young Nathan, and it’s a harrowing set-piece in its horror and inevitable authenticity. Scott Glenn, Scott Poythress, Hope Davis, and David Denman make up the other familiar faces in Greenland, and they all excel at filling out the film’s snapshot of humanity — both the good and the bad. Some help, others hinder, and most are stuck in their own nightmare of not being able to do a damn thing about the imminent death of family members
For all of Greenland‘s later scenes of destruction and violence, one of its most powerful lands early on after John is first notified that his family’s been chosen. The message crosses the TV screen in a living room filled with friends and neighbors — none of whom have been picked. There’s an awkward tension to the scene as the others move through disbelief, jealousy, and anger to a scene of devastating desperation. It’s heartbreaking stuff, and the film keeps moving while the emotional sting still burns.
The film captures the chaos and selfish acts that would most surely follow such events, but both Waugh and Sparling just as much warmth in humanity. It’s a move forward for both as their previous fare — from Waugh’s Angel Has Fallen (2019) to Sparling’s ATM (2012) — champion differing degrees of thrills over believable human interactions. While bigger films like Wonder Woman 1984 (2020) offer cartoonish nods to humanity’s worthiness, Greenland earns an optimism by the time the credits roll.
The end of the world shenanigans may be minor here on the visual effects front, but the message is clear through both the destruction we do see and the human frailty that follows. We’re just one big stone away from extinction, but if there’s any hope for redemption it’ll come down to the choices we make along the way. So yeah, punch that comet if you get the chance and give Greenland a spin.