Greenland is a well-paced and reasonably entertaining 90s style disaster movie

Gerard Butler runs around like a headless chicken in Greenland, a retro disaster movie now streaming on Prime Video. Here’s critic Luke Buckmaster’s review.

Old mate Gerard Butler knows where it’s at—if “where it’s at” meant “stuff people liked watching in the 1990s”. The burly star, whose shtick is equal parts average guy and alpha male, has made a habit of steering action flicks with a distinctly 90s twang—from the one about protecting the White House from foreign terrorists (how quaint; these days terrorists vote Republican) to a Heat-esque heist movie, and the so-bad-it’s-kinda-good Geostorm.

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Now we have Greenland, another 90s style disaster movie beginning with G that’s restrained in its dishing out of carnage (somebody’s watching the purse strings) but not unreasonably stingy. It recalls a simpler time when the end of the world was perceived to be a sudden abrupt event that buggers up this planet (see also: Armageddon, Deep Impact, Independence Day) rather than the horrific slow-moving train crashes we’re currently witnessing unfold in reality.

The message implicit throughout the carnage in Greenland is: the apocalypse ain’t what it used to be. Indeed. Getting nostalgic for a more palatable form of annihilation is an odd place to be, yet that is where the collective headspace appears to be at—and I for one welcome our new albeit rather old-fashioned Gerard Butler saviours.

In the opening moments of Greenland director Ric Roman Waugh depicts a longshot of the city then takes us to the roof of a skyscraper on which structural engineer John Garrity (Butler) is working, hard hat on and ruler and pencil in hand, large pieces of paper spread out in front of him. His body language and his props and costume clearly say: “look, I’m an engineer, and I’m very busy”.

While John is driving home, a radio bulletin mentions a comet is on its way to earth, perhaps like him running a little late for dinner. At home we learn that John and his wife Allison (Morena Baccarin) are experiencing relationship issues. Because of course they are: this happens all the time in disaster movies, which have a tumultuous relationship with Cupid: the arrows of love only start flying around again once the earth is pelted with destructive things and rattles around on its axis.

Upon the arrival of the aforementioned object from outer space, John has the temerity to say, with a completely straight face, “I think something weird’s going on with this comet”—as if the comet were a teenager acting surly. Shortly later a television news presenter informs his viewers that “there are no words for what you are about to see”, which are the same words I tend to say to my wife when I prepare dinner. The vision includes a giant Photoshop airbrush ripping through the city, reducing it to rubble and ash. Outside the kid observes that “the sky’s on fire”.

If any of this sounds like a spoiler, by the way, it in fact recaps only the first 15 minutes of running time. That is what one generally wants from a popcorn movie promising a very specific kind of spectacle: not too much pussyfooting around or pointless exposition. The pace of Greenland is probably its best trait, which of course connects to other aspects of the experience (i.e. a snappy script by Chris Sparling, which plays it straight) and keeps it always watchable and reasonably entertaining. Though the film doesn’t have close to the face-melting momentum of The Hurricane Heist—a terrific, under-rated, high concept disaster-palooza from 2018.

But it does have Gerard Butler. And he’s…well he’s OK. He’s always OK. The Scottish performer belongs to the meaty part of the acting curve: not tearing ahead or bringing attention to himself; nor falling behind.

Butler is effective as the blunt and bearish straight-shooting bloke, a performance mode he has refined down not to a fine art, per se, but some kind of art. John becomes a hero after rising to the challenge, as the old template goes, although his heroism doesn’t extend far beyond his own family—but that’s OK. This is a story of family values by way of an apocalypse. They come to realize their love for each other when they become separated a yada yada.

One chunk of the film seems inspired by Zak Hilditch’s These Final Hours, a grisly end-of-days drama covered in a hot orange glaze, which poses the question of what people would do—how they would react—if they knew or at least strongly suspected that life on earth would end very soon. But Greenland is toothless compared to Hilditch’s depictions of Roussian roulette and butchers knife-wielding psychopaths.

It’s a middle-of-the-road disaster movie—almost literally in one scene when fire and debris spit down from the heavens, causing bedlam on a stretch of highway. These are the moments we long for, and there are just enough of them to pass muster.