‘Greenland’ Pits Gerard Butler Against an Asteroid in Evocative Thriller

The time has come for Gerard Butler to enter that inevitable phase of a rugged action hero where the villain becomes that most menacing of inanimate objects: An asteroid. At least that’s the selling point. “Greenland” could have easily been another rehash about macho guys running around, evading explosions and driving or flying, rifle in hand. And yes, this movie does have some of that. But director Ric Roman Waugh also infuses this disaster thriller with a bit more passion project verve. He grasps how apocalyptic movies are also about some of our deeper, wider fears. Truth be told, he manages to channel some humanity beyond the ragtag special effects.

The screenplay by Chris Sparling builds its story out of one of those typically goofy premises you almost can’t resist. Earth is getting jittery because a previously unknown comet named Clark has emerged from a distant solar system and will, of course, make the closest pass ever by a celestial object to our home. Casually watching the events on the news is John Garrity (Gerard Butler), a structural engineer living in a plush suburbia but with a rocky marriage to Allison (Morena Baccarin). Keeping them somewhat together is their young, diabetic son Nathan (Roger Dale Floyd). As required in these plots the government assures the masses that small harmless fragments of Clark will probably sprinkle into the atmosphere and dissolve like shooting stars. But then John gets an alert from Homeland Security on his phone and TV announcing that he, Allison and Nathan have been selected for an underground shelter. No one else can come. Why? Well, John’s an engineer, which means he has special skills necessary for rebuilding. It turns out the government was expectedly wrong and massive chunks of Clark will soon slam into our planet. 

Once the threat to Earth is established “Greenland” starts juggling disaster clichés with some sharper, even introspective writing. It’s as if Waugh wants to channel popcorn tear-jerkers like “Deep Impact” with arthouse meditations like Lars Von Trier’s “Melancholia,” while hanging on to a small budget. That may sound like quite the cocktail but it kind of works in a popcorn way. Gone are the days when Bruce Willis would go try and nuke the rock in “Armageddon,” more fitting for 2020 is an action movie about civilization grappling with its fragility. Once John gets his notice for shelter he packs up the family to get going, but on the way out the driveway the other suburban neighbors stare hopelessly, one mother desperately begs them to take her child. These early moments of tension, when everyone is at home wondering what’s going on out there have more in common with ‘80s nuclear war dramas like “Testament,” where it’s more about what the people are going through than the cataclysmic object or weapon. 

Waugh is best known for directing gritty movies and “Angel Has Fallen,” one of the “Fallen” entries where Butler saves London or Washington, D.C. from coming apart. Maybe the two decided it was time to make something with more heart, in their own way of course. When John reaches the military base where the family is to be flown off to shelter, infuriating events divide up the family and we assume he will now dodge any number of violent obstacle courses to get to Allison and Nathan. The movie then surprises us again by being more patient and human. There are indeed constant shots of fiery objects crashing through the sky, sometimes slamming in the far distance, creating ominous towers of flame. Small scenes have a debauched end of the world feel, like John coming across a rooftop party of revelers cheering on as cosmic rocks hit the horizon. B-movie genre material for sure, but a bit unnerving in a year when so many people defied lockdown orders and preferred to party on as Covid spread. 

The moments between the Garritys leaving their home and making a final run to get away from disaster are not wasted on mindless action scenes. Waugh increases the threat, as he must, and the government soon admits that now a 9-mile wide chunk of Clark will slam into Earth (specifically by 8 a.m., mind you) and basically  wipe us like the dinosaurs. In a typical movie of this kind we would get endless CGI shots of the giant rock edging closer to the globe. Instead, we get unnerving or melancholic little vignettes. John hops on a truck with various passengers trying to seek safety and realizes he can’t trust anyone, while another occupant shares about not seeing his family for years. Allison and Nathan have an even more frightening experience, with a deceptively nice couple offering them a ride that then turns violent when they see a chance to use their pick-ups for a shot at the shelter flights. Scott Glenn appears half-way through in one of his typically scruffy performances as Allison’s father Dale, who is facing the inevitable with stoic confidence. Glenn also delivers one of the film’s best moments when Dale has a talk with John about marriage and family.

You might be wondering what does any of this have to do with the title “Greenland.” It’s simply where the government has set up the underground shelters, so you can already guess where Butler is trying to rush his family to just before the world ends. And yes, even on a small budget Waugh manages to still deliver some oldies but goodies like a small passenger plane somehow defying the shockwave of a crashing asteroid or a few famous world sites getting decimated. You also can’t have a comet disaster flick without a looting scene or two. But Waugh works around his budget constraints to focus more on the dramatic possibilities. It’s a surprisingly entertaining popcorn ride about what it must feel like to know a massive threat is hurtling towards everything. The mood of “Greenland” turns out to be much more convincing than the special effects. That should mean something in a year where reality beat any fiction.

Greenland” releases Dec. 18 on VOD.