Greenland review: Gerard Butler’s new disaster film is surprisingly scary

Director Ric Roman Waugh’s film is utterly unlike the Butler vehicles we’re used to – all the jingoistic bombast of 'Geostorm' or 'Olympus Has Fallen' is nowhere to be seen

Clarisse Loughrey
Friday 05 February 2021 06:31 GMT
Greenland trailer

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Louise Thomas

Louise Thomas


Dir: Ric Roman Waugh. Starring: Gerard Butler, Morena Baccarin, Roger Dale Floyd, Scott Glenn, David Denman, Hope Davis. 15, 119 mins

Greenland, the latest in Gerard Butler’s ever-expanding oeuvre of action films, is full of surprises. The first one arrives when the actor – in the role of grizzled Atlanta-based engineer John Garrity – opens his mouth, only for his natural Scottish burr to slip out. It’s hard to think of the last time Butler wasn’t forced to adopt a hardened American twang for one of these films. The moment is so unexpected, it might make you jump.

The second one is that director Ric Roman Waugh’s Greenland is utterly unlike the Butler vehicles we’re used to – all the jingoistic bombast of Geostorm or Olympus Has Fallen is nowhere to be seen. This is a disaster film laced with a palpable sense of fear, though it comes in the guise of something mildly absurd. John, recently separated from his wife, Allison (Morena Baccarin), is returning home to host a birthday party for his seven-year-old son Nathan (Roger Dale Floyd). The boy, however, seems distracted by news that a comet, affectionately termed Clarke, is about to pass by Earth, with a single fragment expected to crash land somewhere in the Bermuda Triangle. Nathan, his friends, and their parents all gather around the TV, all beaming with scientific curiosity, only for the news anchors to solemnly declare that the scientists were wrong in their calculations. Cut to a shot of Tampa, Florida, burnt to a crisp.

That explains the mysterious phone call John received from Homeland Security, asking him and his family to stand by for instructions. They’ve been specially selected for evacuation to an old Cold War bunker – the location of which is supposedly top secret, despite being the title of the film. Not only will more fragments soon rain down on Earth’s population, but a nine-mile-wide chunk, termed a “planet killer”, is predicted to wipe out western Europe in the next 48 hours and trigger an extinction-level-event.

Roland Emmerich – who gave us Independence Day, The Day After Tomorrow, and 2012 – continues to cast a gargantuan shadow over the genre. With it comes certain expectations, and so Greenland begrudgingly shows us images of global destruction, including a hollowed-out Sydney Opera House and a flaccid Eiffel Tower. But its limited budget – $35m versus Geostorm’s $120m – means Chris Sparling’s script must home in on the family’s more intimate, eerily believable struggles. There’s a missing pack of insulin (Nathan is diabetic) and a whole lot of fuss about doomsday bureaucracy.

John (Gerard Butler) receives a mysterious phone call from Homeland Security, asking him and his family to stand by for instructions
John (Gerard Butler) receives a mysterious phone call from Homeland Security, asking him and his family to stand by for instructions (Prime Video)

Unsurprisingly, the family’s plans to evacuate, don’t go to plan. They scream at wearied officials, then get separated, endangered, and swallowed up in the chaos – all while the camera tries desperately to keep up with them, as they push through crowds and weave between the miles of traffic-jammed cars. Baccarin’s emotional commitment is impressive, as she tries to act both as parent and rescuer to her son, with no time to process the unfathomable. And Butler, though he wears these roles now like an old coat, still allows flashes of vulnerability to peek out from behind the starry veneer.

Greenland isn’t revolutionary – it’s still let down by that myopic sense that every victory for our heroes is a victory for humanity, even as newscasters reel off the capital cities obliterated off the map. While Waugh couldn’t quite rescue Butler’s last film, Angel Has Fallen, from the violent ugliness of its franchise, he at least injected it with a little self-awareness. He’s more successful here, making Greenland, shot in 2019, a fitting film for the era. Why be so flippant about global disaster when those ideas now feel so close to home?

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