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How Greenland Shows the Exact Way to Make a Good Disaster Film

I wouldn’t go as far as to call “Greenland” a masterpiece but it’s certainly one of the biggest cinematic surprises in a while. It spent three weeks in theaters without much fanfare here in Mexico until they shut down again this weekend. This makes sense, after all, not many people were going to risk a trip to the cinema during a pandemic for another seemingly unremarkable Gerard Butler action movie. Thankfully, word of mouth spread in time for me to watch it before it was too late. This is the type of feature where several of the scares come from the sound mix and great visuals. It demands to be seen with the right sound system and on the big screen.

Whatever its flaws and limitations, I see “Greenland” as the poster boy for Ebert’s rule of “It’s not what the movie is about, but how it is about it.” The film shares more than a few elements with the two members of the “gigantic earth busting comet movie” genre (“Deep Impact” and “Armageddon,” both from 1998), and on the surface it seems even closer to Roland Emmerich’s “2012.” But "Greenland" is set apart from all of them with its very different attitude. 

Directed by Ric Roman Waugh, the film deals with the events leading to the appearance of Comet Clarke, a spectacular moment that appears harmless enough until several clues make it clear that something bigger is on the way. Skyscraper builder (and thus essential worker) John Garrity (Gerard Butler) is recruited along with his estranged wife Allison (Morena Baccarin) and son Nathan (Roger Dale Floyd) for a flight to Greenland where shelters were built years ago for just such an occasion; they spend a good deal of the movie facing one believable setback after another. They're a family unit in crisis, reminiscent of the one Spielberg created in “War of the Worlds” (2005).

Few things have been as frustrating to me as Hollywood’s recent inability to make a good disaster film, despite coming up with truly groundbreaking SFX technology. “2012” is a good example of the philosophy that the more realistic visual effects have become, the less believable that disaster films have turned out to be. Other predecessors of "Greenland" have all made the same mistake: they never take themselves even remotely seriously, and their makers see them as mere roller coaster rides designed to sell popcorn. In that regard some may have succeeded, but I will never understand the point of making a movie about the end of the world if the audience never really gets the feel what it would be like to live through such an event. 

Most of Emmerich's recent disaster entries have shared the same tendency to create over-the-top characters whose attitudes have nothing to do with what’s going on around them, and who have relationships that make it too easy to determine who lives and who dies (case in point: Amanda Peet’s doomed boyfriend in “2012”). Even the supposedly frightening characters in these movies have turned out to be complete duds, unlike what we get here in "Greenland." Just compare Woody Harrelson’s mad prophet form “2012” to the bearded, overweight everyman in “Greenland” whose unpredictable, and terrifying nature is only revealed as we slowly come to realize that his best interest may not necessarily align with those of the leads. When it comes to its character’s attitudes “Greenland” is much more reminiscent to the disaster films of the 1970s than to the rest of the movies mentioned above. The characters here are much more believable as well. They panic to the point of doing things they would have never guessed, like leaving behind their beloved neighbor’s children to their sad fates, and they make the normal mistakes that regular people would make in a situation like this (ex.: one suitcase allowed” actually means one suitcase per family).

Director Waugh makes Clarke the comet a truly frightening menace not unlike what Spielberg achieved with Bruce the shark decades before, and wisely takes the same approach in introducing its full dimension little by little. Every death in this movie is deeply felt, and is not just put aside a couple of scenes later. The characters in “Greenland” don’t act as if they were on a roller coaster ride but rather as if in a situation where they're fighting for their lives every step of the way. Take for instance a sequence when the leading man can’t avoid facing a couple of crazies, and we then see his stunned reaction at realizing he's capable of the unimaginable. In these most difficult times, a movie like “Greenland” can actually help you put your personal problems in perspective if only for a couple of hours. That is the best compliment I can imagine for an entry of this nature.

All of the above is not to say that the movie doesn’t include its share of apocalyptic film clichés. After all, what would a disaster entry be without a leading couple living through a marital crisis that will inevitably be solved, much as in “The Abyss,” “Twister,” “2012,” and so on? And how could “Greenland” possibly convey immediate doom without the usual sky full of ominously flying birds? And what would a film like this be without all the crisis associated with the typical ill child in dire need of medication, just as in in “World War Z,” “Signs,” and what have you? At least the filmmakers made this last dilemma integral to the plot. 

Still, I’m also a bit skeptical about the plausibility of building all these shelters in the remote lands of Greenland since logic dictates nothing would stop a comet from colliding directly with Earth precisely in that region. We also have to look past all these incredible coincidences that need to take place for the characters to remain together and crash land just a couple of miles from their destination (much as it happened in “2012”). But "Greenland" is so convincing, we don’t really care too much about these weaknesses. 

Waugh's film will likely be remembered as a special effects movie, but they wouldn’t achieve the same result without actors and a director to sell them to the audience, such as in the ending sequence which features scenes from destroyed cities around the world. When my hometown’s presidential palace in ruins turned up, I have to admit that it received cheers from all four audience members. It was for all the wrong reasons, but also for all the right ones.

After watching “Greenland” I was especially surprised to see how well Butler comes off by adding some vulnerability to his character. Maybe Butler has found his true niche in this genre, much like Liam Neeson did with the “special set of skills” character from "Taken" over a decade ago. After all these years of complaining and writing on this site about half a dozen pieces on the problem with the recent disaster films, one viewing of “Greenland” has left me with nothing more to say about the subject. It shows the exact way to make a really good one.

Gerardo Valero

Gerardo Valero is lives in Mexico City with his wife Monica. Since 2011 he's been writing a daily blog about film clichés and flubs (in Spanish) on Mexico's Cine-Premiere Magazine. His contributions to "Ebert's Little Movie Glossary" were included in the last twelve editions of "Roger Ebert's Movie Yearbook."

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