Scottish-born Gerard Butler has entered the 2020s as a differently evolved actor than how he had started his 2010s. Once the ruggedly bearded heartthrob who charmed with his vocal cords, or his good looks, or both, his niche has always lied within genres more physical and adrenaline laced. In teaming up once again with director Ric Roman Waugh, the pair having previously worked on last year’s oddly satisfying Angel Has Fallen, Butler sees a perfect opportunity to mellow out his gruff hero motif and add a sense of humanist clarity. Greenland does just that, with much room for panic and dread while the world literally rains down fire from above.
It’s a fictitious version of our Earth under the looming threat of a series of comets aiming to touch down, with Butler supposedly one of a handful with the skills necessary for future survival. He plays John Garrity, a tired Atlantan working in structural engineering. Where long hours mean a growing estrangement with wife Allison (Morena Baccarin) and diabetic son Nathan (newcomer Roger Dale Floyd). As they plan a reunion party between themselves and neighbors to celebrate the discovery of a new comet, the worst possible news emerges upon discovering the comet has split off, the rocky elements having caught aflame with a trajectory toward the planet as it spins.
Instinct kicks in, to panic and mull about in uncertainty. Until the government cold calls John, alerting the Garrity’s about a potential safe zone. Without another moment’s thought, the trio pack into the family SUV, on a high-adrenaline road trip to this secret enclosure. Screenwriter Chris Sparling (The Sea of Trees) doesn’t waste a moment to make this journey physically impossible to chart. That motivation quickly opens the door to an insane series of shenanigans. Missing insulin meds, refugee panic, looting, a grizzled father-in-law (Scott Glenn), and an unexpectedly tense hitchhiking subplot involving an anxiety-stricken couple (David Denman and Hope Davis).
It’s very possible any other writer wouldn’t have known how to make such common aspects of an apocalyptic societal event so absurdist, manic, or downright cartoonish. Sparling has that down pat, keeping the fun level at a high level throughout without losing its sense of humanity. Waugh, who by now knows Butler’s archetype, further solidifies the firm footing so many action films that appear to be cut from the same fabrics struggle to achieve. He’s dialed in, molding the script he’s been handed, a mildly thrilling if not also sluggish page-turner on its own, into an astonishingly low-key disaster epic. Think 2012 or The Towering Inferno, but still scaled down a trifle. As cheesy as the latter, but visually conservative in a way akin to the former. It has no trouble spinning from both ideas, honoring what the subgenre could do then, and what it’s capable of now. It will not be for everyone, but to those who can appreciate its quirks, a true treat awaits.
And much of that quirkiness can be equally attributed to Butler, not just the lead but also a co-producer alongside Waugh. His say towards Greenland’s overall point of conquest goes beyond mere notes. His experience with pain serves his drive as a lead performer. It would’ve been better accentuated if the guy were a real-life dad, but it’s still a very level-headed character Butler brings to life. The antithesis to so much morose activity amid hordes of crazy desperate to avoid dying. Baccarin is a true rock, steadying her on-screen domestic partner with good chemistry, and bringing major heat when her motherly intuition is tested. That’s somehow the job of Mr. Denman, the Dunder Mifflin alum who was easy to impress as a more subdued dad character in last year’s dark sci-fi antihero gem Brightburn. Here, he’s tougher to peg down when in absolute desperation mode. He and Davis appear a trifle underutilized, unfortunately. Their characters didn’t make for sufficient antagonists, the pair propelled by fear and not much else. Good enough to see Denman going rage-lite, at least. The venerable Glenn does fare much better in the way of late-acting depth, simply by virtue of being a close family frenemy to John.
Of course, where certain supporting characters fall short on thematic oomph, the scenery around them looks to make up. For a film mostly shot in and around Atlanta, much of it can be stretched out to offer that Anytown mystique. Props to Dana Gonzalez (Fargo), clearly a cinematographer who can make way more than what could be captured on the surface with more basic cameras. And to composer David Buckley (Unhinged), whose musical choices further add a modern spin on the cataclysm drama, without being anywhere near a John Williams clone.
To pull off the often-impossible feat of a legitimately good disaster film rooted in the sci-fi or thriller spheres, that boils down to having the right people involved who can treat the material with respect, and with room to evolve beyond a simple script. Greenland shouldn’t work as well as it does, it screams cookie cutter on the page. Waugh has proven he can cause a spark to light those pages ablaze, knowing the visual interpretation can mean much more. It’s still needlessly cheesy, and those who couldn’t unironically enjoy what came before it will have the least to gain.
But Butler keeps that in mind with a firm chip on both shoulders, just like he’s always had. The greatest difference here could be that, along with his director, they’re speaking to, and challenging the rigors of humanity in multiple earthbound crises running parallels against each other, that are all difficult to predict, more so to control (sound familiar?). And all that, while allowing room on the side to be just a little slapdash, and a little silly, with the best of intentions. And as one year of insanity transitions into another where normalcy is far from assured, that might be all we can hope out of a strong, popcorn-friendly action tale. (B+; 3.5/5 Horns Up!)
Greenland is currently available on VOD and most digital retailers; rated PG-13 for intense sequences of disaster action, some violence, bloody images, and brief strong language; 119 minutes.