Greenland review – Gerard Butler v comet in solid disaster thriller

In a year when many of us obsessed over anti-escapist films about disasters engulfing the world while also being presented with a junkier than usual lineup of wannabe blockbusters (both the obvious result of the dreaded C-word), there’s something fitting about us closing the year out with Greenland, a chaotic comet thriller presenting the apocalypse up on a chipped platter, the cut-rate combo that 2020 deserves.

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Originally set to star Chris Evans with District 9’s Neill Blomkamp at the helm, instead we have Ric Roman Waugh reuniting with his Angel Has Fallen star Gerard Butler, a lower-wattage prospect compounded by the film’s prime theatrical release in June swapping out for an on-demand launch before Christmas. Butler, who last faced natural disasters in 2017’s dreadful Geostorm, plays John, a structural engineer trying to patch things up with his estranged wife Allison (Morena Baccarin) and son Nathan. But in pleasingly quick and frantic fashion, their lives are upturned by an incoming comet, one that was originally predicted to bypass Earth but is now set to cause mass destruction. John gets a call to tell him he’s been pre-selected along with his family for shelter which sets them on a path to safety although it’s one that’s far from smooth …

Working with a budget far lower than that for a film of its ilk (just $35m compared to Geostorm’s $120m or even the far less action-centric Contagion’s $60m), Greenland is sold on grand spectacle yet contains not that much of it. I’d argue that it’s just about enough for viewers not to feel short-changed (it’s no Reign of Fire in that regard) but it’s a film where the biggest moments are told in fleeting montage, something that works both for and against it. The tight focus on a family’s struggle to stay alive rather than the experts figuring out what to do behind the scenes is refreshing (Butler’s everyman can only do so much to help) and there’s a horribly well-orchestrated anxiety to some of the earlier, surprisingly believable scenes. The specifics of selection and how this process would then operate during a disaster (starting with the newly adopted presidential alert which leads to a QR code) feels just about convincing enough and there’s a clamminess to watching the characters desperately try to figure it all out. The script, from Buried writer Chris Sparling, is also infused with a rather pessimistic view of humanity, characters showcasing terrible behaviour that’s easily identifiable after the year we have all had.

But the family’s lack of identifiable characteristics (dad = man, mum = woman, son = diabetic) means we get tired of them all too fast. The indulgent two-hour runtime also means that their journey starts to plod as well as lose even the slightest amount of credibility by the time we reach the film’s absurd finale. The clue to where it’s all headed is, er, in the title and despite the film’s enjoyably extreme ramping up of global mayhem, it all crescendoes in a classic “have your cake and eat it” disaster movie ending.

It’s an adequate, involving enough afternoon watch (faint praise: better than Geostorm) and for those with a certain destructive itch that still needs scratching, this should do the job.

  • Greenland is released digitally in the US on Friday with a UK release to be announced