Whatever its flaws and limitations, I see “Greenland” as the poster boy for Ebert’s rule of “It’s not what the movie is about, but how it is about it.” The film shares more than a few elements with the two members of the “gigantic earth busting comet movie” genre (“Deep Impact” and “Armageddon,” both from 1998), and on the surface it seems even closer to Roland Emmerich’s “2012.” But “Greenland” is set apart from all of them with its very different attitude.
Directed by Ric Roman Waugh, the film deals with the events leading to the appearance of Comet Clarke, a spectacular moment that appears harmless enough until several clues make it clear that something bigger is on the way. Skyscraper builder (and thus essential worker) John Garrity (Gerard Butler) is recruited along with his estranged wife Allison (Morena Baccarin) and son Nathan (Roger Dale Floyd) for a flight to Greenland where shelters were built years ago for just such an occasion; they spend a good deal of the movie facing one believable setback after another. They’re a family unit in crisis, reminiscent of the one Spielberg created in “War of the Worlds” (2005).
Few things have been as frustrating to me as Hollywood’s recent inability to make a good disaster film, despite coming up with truly groundbreaking SFX technology. “2012” is a good example of the philosophy that the more realistic visual effects have become, the less believable that disaster films have turned out to be. Other predecessors of “Greenland” have all made the same mistake: they never take themselves even remotely seriously, and their makers see them as mere roller coaster rides designed to sell popcorn. In that regard some may have succeeded, but I will never understand the point of making a movie about the end of the world if the audience never really gets the feel what it would be like to live through such an event.
Most of Emmerich’s recent disaster entries have shared the same tendency to create over-the-top characters whose attitudes have nothing to do with what’s going on around them, and who have relationships that make it too easy to determine who lives and who dies (case in point: Amanda Peet’s doomed boyfriend in “2012”). Even the supposedly frightening characters in these movies have turned out to be complete duds, unlike what we get here in “Greenland.” Just compare Woody Harrelson’s mad prophet form “2012” to the bearded, overweight everyman in “Greenland” whose unpredictable, and terrifying nature is only revealed as we slowly come to realize that his best interest may not necessarily align with those of the leads. When it comes to its character’s attitudes “Greenland” is much more reminiscent to the disaster films of the 1970s than to the rest of the movies mentioned above. The characters here are much more believable as well. They panic to the point of doing things they would have never guessed, like leaving behind their beloved neighbor’s children to their sad fates, and they make the normal mistakes that regular people would make in a situation like this (ex.: one suitcase allowed” actually means one suitcase per family).