Master of destruction Roland Emmerich has done the most to make the genre synonymous with sound and fury, delivering what naysayers might dub the “catastrophe kitsch” canon with Independence Day, The Day After Tomorrow, and 2012. Alien invasions, world-destroying superstorms, and deadly solar flares are front and center in these effects-laden extravaganzas, as human characters flee fast-collapsing cities like rats off a sinking ship.
But not all disaster films are constructed with such a seismic scope. Closer in tone to Steven Spielberg’s War of the Worlds or even Steven Soderbergh’s Contagion, Ric Roman Waugh’s Greenland is a more intimately scaled sci-fi disaster-thriller.
Released to VOD during the pandemic, Greenland focuses on one family’s attempt to find a haven as the world, threatened by the approach of a planet-leveling comet, collapses into chaos around them. Now that Greenland is streaming on HBO Max, it’s time a wider audience discovered one of star Gerard Butler’s most unexpectedly effective movies in years.
At the center of the story is John Garrity (Butler), a structural engineer estranged from his wife Allison (Morena Baccarin of Deadpool) and forced to brave a rapidly unraveling American landscape in the midst of what appears to be the end of days. Reteaming with Butler after directing him in Angel Has Fallen — the better-than-expected third film in the Fallen action franchise — Waugh works at the mid-budget range in Greenland. At those limitations, he delivers an uncommonly scary and realistic sci-fi disaster film that sets its spectacle aside to focus on character.
The almost unbearable tension of Greenland is best exemplified by one of its early scenes. John and Allison gather with neighbors in their suburban Atlanta community to celebrate their young son Nathan’s birthday. A few signs that something’s amiss — jets soaring overhead, an automated phone call from the government — have John slightly on edge. As a giant comet called Clarke approaches Earth’s atmosphere, scientists take to the morning newscasts to reassure everyone that only “harmless” chunks of the comet will touch down, somewhere in the Atlantic.
A little nervous but still smiling, the group watches the TV in the Garritys’ living room, expecting the cameras to depict a big splash and nothing more. Excited, the children begin counting down along with the news anchor. But as the group awaits images of the comet’s touchdown, the house starts to shake. John rushes outside just in time for a shockwave to knock him off his feet, shattering windows and setting car alarms blaring along the street.
Eyes wide, John heads inside and stares at the TV as the graphic of an epicenter appears on screen and the anchor shakily reports that this celestial object, “estimated to be the size of a football stadium,” has crashed into Tampa, wiping much of central Florida off the map. Waugh keeps his camera close to the actors at this gathering, as the mood abruptly shifts from uncertainty to fear. One young girl clings to her mother’s leg, horrified, as the camera captures the shock and disbelief of these families taking in a natural disaster on the TV set. The news anchor, audibly in shock himself, soon confirms their worst fears as cell phone footage from an undoubtedly deceased source appears on the screen, showing a wave of fire enveloping a city.
Then, someone asks the question that’s on everyone’s mind: How many more fragments are coming? Soon, it’s revealed a nine-mile-wide chunk of meteor is inbound, massive enough to trigger an extinction-level event.
John and his family learn via text message that the government has selected them to flee this disaster to an undisclosed bunker. Packing only one bag and making haste to an airport, they hope to board a military cargo plane and head to safety. No one else in the living room has received such a text. Out of the group’s state of shock come rational, terrifying questions John can’t answer: Can you take us with you? Or if not us, how about our kids?
What so terrifies about Greenland, in a way no one could have anticipated from a Gerard Butler-led disaster flick, is its plausibility. The film’s uncommonly good script by Chris Sparling spares no effort to ground the movie in the existential terror of a civilization facing down its final hours, all while centering the odyssey of one family seeking a safe haven.
With a once-friendly neighbor pounding helplessly on the window of their sedan, the Garritys flee, attempting to keep up appearances so as not to terrify their son. First, they head to the pre-arranged extraction point, but the journey ends up requiring a pilgrimage across the country after thousands of desperate civilians overrun that escape route.
Waugh delivers just enough pyrotechnics, especially during that airport sequence, to ensure audiences believe in the explosive potential of Greenland’s fast-approaching doomsday. Still, he spaces them out in such a way that such effects-heavy sequences never feel numbing or repetitive. The focus here is on the painfully honest, sometimes terrifying, and always moving interactions the Garritys have with strangers abruptly united in the same effort to survive.
The supporting characters of Greenland are far from stock players. Waugh involved plenty of military veterans both in front of and behind the camera, which might explain the striking realism and unexpectedly decent humanity of characters a lesser film would have turned into villains. Active duty enlisted men and women are all over Greenland, many of them non-actors, and their presence elevates the film’s sense of verisimilitude.
Greenland reportedly cost $35 million, a much lower figure than one would expect from a modern disaster film. Since advanced CGI technology in the ‘90s, big-budget disaster flicks have been reliable cash cows for many a Hollywood studio. Look at the ‘90s, when films like Twister (made for $92 million and earning nearly $500 million), Independence Day (budgeted at $75 million, making $817 million), Armageddon (made for $140 million, making $553.7 million), and Deep Impact (made for $80 million, earning $349.5 million) were cleaning up at the box office and regaling audiences with one big-budget blitzkrieg after another.
This ‘90s disaster craze climaxed with Titanic, once the highest-grossing film of all time, for which writer-director James Cameron required a budget north of $200 million; it made over $2.1 billion worldwide and swept the Academy Awards to take home 11 trophies (including Best Picture and Best Director). By really any metric, Titanic is one of the biggest filmmaking successes in Hollywood history, and it proved that sinking huge budgets into productions that demanded such scale could pay off tenfold.
By comparison, Greenland’s $35 million spend feels all the more like a triumph, pointing to how far CGI technology has advanced over the past few decades and also indicating the creative integrity of a project that seeks real human intimacy amid a doom-laden atmosphere.
Traditional disaster films feature ensemble casts of actors and interconnected storylines to show multiple groups of characters struggling to escape death during some global catastrophe. But Greenland stays zeroed in on the Garritys, relying on two formidable performances. One is from Butler, as a beleaguered everyman whose quiet stoicism can’t quite disguise the hopelessness overtaking his headspace. The other is from Baccarin, as an unhappy young mother suddenly forced to reckon with the imperfect life she chose and the value of her loved ones, whatever their shortcomings. Their work makes Greenland feel like a relationship drama as much as a stirring sci-fi spectacle.
Delayed several times throughout the pandemic before being released on VOD last December, Greenland was denied the grandeur of a big-screen release. One can easily imagine the film’s apocalyptic tenor being heightened by the sensory magnitude of an IMAX bow, and David Buckley’s ominous (yet impressively restrained) score especially cries out to be experienced in a theater.
Still, HBO Max has prioritized high-definition streaming since its launch. And that the platform dropped a jaw-dropping $20-30 million to move Greenland into its library belies its interest in treating the film as an “at-home premiere” rather than a content dump. Its HD presentation on the streamer does the film’s gritty look justice, and its foreboding sound mix is exceptionally well-preserved. Besides, seeing Greenland at home enhances its grounded, ripped-from-the-headlines style. This is the kind of disaster film that succeeds through unexpected authenticity, and its pulse-quickening first hour is an especially tough, breathtaking watch: not because of any escapist pleasures the movie offers, but rather as a result of the terrifying, oddly cathartic sense of recognition you feel watching it.
Greenland will hit especially hard for those of us who’ve spent this past year quietly bracing for the impact of another devastating AP news alert. If this isn’t exactly how the end of the world will happen, the way its characters learn about the film’s cataclysm at least feels eerily believable. It’s enough to make you grip your armrest a little tighter and pray for a much sillier, stupider disaster flick to shake the anxiety of watching Greenland, a movie that’s frankly much better than it needed to be.
Greenland is currently streaming on HBO Max in the U.S.