Where are the flashes?
John Garrity (Gerard Butler) dreads going home at the start of director Ric Roman Waugh and screenwriter Chris Sparling‘s disaster film Greenland, but it’s not because a giant comet from an unknown solar system is flying closer to Earth than expected. He’s not some scientist who’s been studying the trajectory or a military man with the expertise to stop it. He’s a structural engineer pretending his foreman can’t finish up because he’s unsure of what to expect upon opening his front door. The fact Allison (Morena Baccarin) even agreed to provisionally let him back in after their separation has his guilt running wild, consuming his every waking minute. Traversing the uncharted territory of his marriage’s second chance therefore scares him enough already. The world can wait.
And it does thanks to the media’s indifference to the comet’s danger and its assurances that no one will be affected beyond having front row seats to a cool light show. John might not care even if the risk was high considering everything going on at home. How will he help get over the awkwardness he and Allison feel whenever they’re in the same room? How will he comfort their son (Roger Dale Floyd‘s Nathan) and promise he’ll love him no matter what happens as a result of his return? Add the decision to invite neighbors over for a “watch party” and the drama goes into overdrive. Even Allison’s request to hit the store for more alcohol right as he’s about to clean the grill puts him off-balance.
I loved the sheer mundanity of it all. Knowing the carnage still to come (disaster films inherently rely on explosive set-pieces that move beyond the personal issues of their leads), it was refreshing to meet the Garrity family as a group of regular people (if well-off financially) that will simply have to try and survive. Even when John gets an unsolicited “Presidential Emergency” text alert and phone call, we realize through his confusion that there won’t be any special treatment. Being lucky enough to win this unknown lottery towards potential salvation just as the truth of the comet’s extinction-level threat goes public doesn’t mean the journey there will be easy. How could it when ninety-nine percent of the population’s phones held zero hope for a similar rescue?
Greenland is thus less about the apocalyptic reality and more about these three people searching for ways to preserve their tenuous love. The chaos at a military base attempting to load lottery winners onto cargo planes while thousands of protestors fight and scream to push their way aboard is a backdrop. The fires, looted stores, and highways full of empty cars are obstacles to weave through en route to longshot scenarios. John and Allison get separated. Then Allison and Nathan get separated. And all the while her father (Scott Glenn‘s Dale) waits for them either to embrace their destruction together or at least say goodbye. Before they get that chance, however, they’ll have to survive mankind’s fear-driven rage. Bad things are happening and each event leaves its mark.
This is perhaps the best deviation from usual disaster films wherein the fallout of stopping annihilation is the only source of conflict. By telling us that prevention isn’t possible, the comet itself becomes little more than a doomsday clock. Its molten rain will obviously cause issues, but that’s more about aesthetics and thrills for our benefit than creating actual stakes for the Garritys. All they need to know is that the “big one” is coming. That timestamp becomes the endgame to beat. Sparling is thus free to do whatever he wants before then to keep them on their toes and back them into corners their otherwise insulated lives protected them from ever confronting. This is where we see how far they’ll go to ensure their collective safety.
The decisions they face are big and small ranging from the emotional pleas of their friends begging for help as they drive out of their neighborhood to kidnapping and even murder. Credit to the actors at the start for the former since their happy-go-lucky TV-watchers must shift on a dime towards the somber realization that they’ll all be dead in two days except John and Allison. Gary Weeks might actually steal the show once his anger at John’s car window flips to abject fear the moment his character lets his emotions take his words too far. And then there’s Merrin Dungey‘s Air Force Major putting reality into heartbreaking perspective and David Denman and Hope Davis giving a complex face to desperation. Nobody can prepare for something this unfathomable.
It’s therefore a roller coaster of emotions for all involved as scenarios evolve and circumstances change. You go from the elation of being saved to the devastation of being left behind right before a respite of relief is interrupted by a life-or-death altercation at the hands of a stranger. These characters are being forced to fight so that they can die tomorrow—the futility of that truth not setting in until after the adrenaline rush of self-preservation disappears. That’s what happens when possible shortcuts are presented right after you’re told your life is no longer guaranteed. It’s one thing to push forward with the determination to win preservation and another to actively steal another’s chance by force. Life should always remain precious whether the world’s ending or not.
That’s the lesson here. Can you grab hold of what matters as everything falls apart? Will you tear down your defenses and speak your truth or continue running from it? While learning the answers to these questions as they concern the Garritys holds everything together (Butler and Baccarin shine in their roles), we’re also privy to some memorable answers from peripheral players too. There’s the estranged son finding clarity after years of holding a grudge and the military personnel doing right by the innocents in their care despite having already accepted how fate won’t save them in return. Watching as people running for their lives stop to save a stranger from a burning car resonates because it instills hope that our species might deserve a second chance too.
GREENLAND is now available on Blu-ray™, DVD and On Demand from STXfilms and Universal Pictures Home Entertainment.