Except for the very rare surprise, you usually know exactly what you’re going to get with a Gerard Butler movie. It’ll either be silly, bombastic, and with more corn than a pan of Jiffy Pop or (if you’re lucky) a so-bad-it’s-good guilty pleasure. His latest film “Greenland” definitely falls within the “very rare surprise” category. Even more, it’s one of Butler’s best films in years; one that takes the familiar end-of-the-world idea and uses it to explore human nature in a surprisingly thoughtful way.
One of the biggest and most welcomed changes is that in “Greenland” Butler doesn’t play some invulnerable butt-kicking one-man-army. He’s not ex-special forces, ridiculously gun savvy, or spitting out machismo in ever line of dialogue. He’s a structural engineer. He has a son who is diabetic. And he’s trying to repair his fractured marriage. In other words he plays a character grounded in the real world. Kudos to screenwriter Chris Sparling for making that a focus of his script and to director Ric Roman Waugh for building his movie around the human element and avoiding the temptation to go big and loud.
Not to be misleading, “Greenland” is still a disaster thriller. It has its nail-biting tension and explosive action. But those scenes in some way always serve the characters or the film’s human interests. It doesn’t wallow in scene after scene of CGI destruction nor does it waste time numbing our senses with inconsequential noise. In fact, audiences might be surprised at how much the film sticks to its convictions.
Butler reminds us that he has charisma and some acting chops playing John Garrity. We first meet him as he’s overseeing construction of an Atlanta skyscraper. But his mind isn’t on his work. He stares at his phone where a picture of his estranged wife Allison (Morena Baccarin) and young son Nathan (Roger Dale Floyd) brings a swell of emotion. We learn more about their separation later, but Allison has just allowed John to come back home. You can sense the hurt and uncertainty between them once he arrives. Meanwhile Nathan is just happy to have his father back.
As you probably know, disaster movies come pre-packaged with some kind of global threat. This time it’s an interstellar comet affectionately nicknamed “Clark” by scientists and the news media. It’s set to pass by earth with only a few harmless fragments expected to reach the atmosphere (yea right, “harmless”). As the cable news networks provide around-the-clock coverage, people put together neighborhood watch parties for this once in a lifetime event. But then the first fragment (predicted by “experts” to evaporate in the atmosphere) crashes into Florida evaporating the city of Tampa. Needless to say it changes everything.
As more fragments approach, the government remains secretive in hopes of avoiding mass panic. Guess how that works. John receives a presidential alert on his phone telling him that he and his family are among a chosen group of citizens ordered to report to select military bases. Once there they will be checked in and then flown to an underground bunker in a secret undisclosed location. But when those not selected get wind of it they flock to the bases pleading to be allowed on the planes. And as more cities are decimated and with an “extinction level event” just 48 hours away, society begins to break down. This proves to be the biggest obstacle between Jack and his family and the safety of the secret bunker.
At different points in the story Jack, Allison, and Nathan get separated, something the film uses to explore the different facets of human nature. They encounter every make and model of humanity – some full of compassion and self-sacrifice, others who are malicious and opportunistic. It’s an unexpected layer of the story that really highlights one of the movie’s biggest interests. What does it look like when society begins to crumble? How does it look when kindness clashes with malice; when empathy meets callousness?
Adding to the film’s list of surprises, “Greenland” is consistently entertaining and never hits a lull. That’s because the whole thing is really about something more than comets and mass destruction. It’s about family. Yes we learn more about the government’s mysterious selection process and there is some interesting social commentary to boot. But it all comes back to the beauty of family; to fully appreciating what family means and the self-sacrifice￼ required to grow it and protect it. I have to admit, that wasn’t what I was expecting when I heard Gerard Butler was doing a movie about an earth-killing comet.￼ “Greenland” is now streaming on VOD.
VERDICT – 4 STARS