Boasting more adherence to how things might really happen than its forbearers such as 1998’s “Armageddon” and “Deep Impact,” “Greenland’s” (2020) strength as a rocks-from-space disaster flick is how weighty things feel. Writer Chris Sparling and director Ric Roman Waugh keep the focus on one Atlanta family – Gerard Butler’s John, Morena Baccarin’s Allison and Roger Dale Floyd’s 7-year-old Nathan – rather than cutting away to generals strategizing in control rooms with giant countdown clocks.
Through what the Garrity family glimpses amid their chaotic quest to reunite and perhaps survive the impending world-buster comet by getting to a bunker at the Thule air base, we certainly get the gist. News channels and radio hosts report on the end of the world, ranging from the standard “We warn you that what you are about to see is disturbing” to a DJ reading a spiritual poem. From a wonderfully cinematic perspective, the family sees comet trails in the color-changing sky throughout their journey.
Admittedly, when stepping back from “Greenland,” there are flaws. Roger Ebert once said that if a movie tricks you while you’re watching it, it has won; in other words, critics aren’t allowed to think of something after the fact and hold it against the film. I’m stuck in the middle on “Greenland,” where the comet (consisting of several chunks) essentially sneaks up on Earth.
It’s a harrowing moment when the first chunk is supposed to land harmlessly in the ocean but instead hits land, but the idea that scientists are so behind the curve on tracking the rocks seems unlikely, and that nagged at me. But the rest of the film is so smart that I suspected there might be an answer, and even if there isn’t, I had largely forgiven that out-of-the-gates cheat by the end.
Actually, the real-world scenario is almost scarier than the sneak attack. At this point in civilization, we are advanced enough to be forewarned of a comet yet not advanced enough to do anything about it, and that’s pretty terrifying – but hard to dramatize. Still, despite trying to work in surprise factors and seeming to speed up the Garritys’ trip to a Canadian airport, “Greenland” does have a compelling question at its core: As doomsday approaches, would you bother with the long odds of getting to a military shelter, or would you just try to get to your loved ones to be with them at the end?
Sparling smartly has the Garritys doing a little of each, and his screenplay gives nice glimpses of the best and worst of humanity. Have Kleenex ready, even in unlikely moments. One that worked on me is when Allison hugs a FEMA nurse who has simply done her job, giving Nathan as much insulin as she can spare. Even in this age of superheroes, there’s nothing more heroic than seeing nurses and soldiers doing their jobs while knowing they’ll be obliterated in a matter of days. That said, “Greenland” also shows how terrifying the strict, sealed-lipped nature of military operations can be from a civilian point of view; signs that they should and should not be trusted come in equal measure.
The same goes for the regular folks our heroes meet. Solid character actors David Denman and Hope Davis are on hand for a different angle on “What would you do to survive?,” while Scott Glenn adds a curmudgeonly wrinkle as Allison’s Kentucky farmstead dad. And Butler, Baccarin and Floyd have plain ole great chemistry as a family. Sparling uses the “estranged couple that still loves each other” trope (as perfected by “The Abyss”), but because Baccarin and Butler are so good together, it’s almost beside the point.
“Greenland’s” most remarkable achievement is how it’s personal yet it captures the weighty, depressing tragedy of the world’s fate even better than those 1998 planet-buster blockbusters. And it does it without being melodramatic; amazingly, no one says “God help us all.” The pandemic has driven home how quickly reality can change, yet this 2020 film shows that a virus ain’t got nothin’ on space rocks.