Greenland movie review: a human spin on the end of the world

MaryAnn’s quick take: A same-old tale of apocalypse knows we’ve seen this all before, and so centers human drama over disaster porn. It has nothing new to say, but at least it says it well, with notes of horrific grace.
I’m “biast” (pro): love a good disaster movie...
I’m “biast” (con): ...but this one didn’t look good
(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)

So, good news, everyone. Global warming has been solved. Accidentally. Because a big-ass comet called Clarke is headed our way. Right our way. And when it hits, 48 hours from now, all the debris that gets thrown into the atmosphere is gonna block out the sun. For months. Almost all plant and animal life on Earth will be killed off — like, the go-extinct kind of killed off. But hey: we must take our silver linings where we can find them.

Now, no one in Greenland mentions this unexpected boon side effect of impending planetary doom, but I am confident that someone is absolutely thinking it. Because this is a surprisingly — stunningly, really — pragmatic movie about the end of human civilization as we know it. There is no disaster porn here, and precisely one moment of sentiment, which is very well earned, and anyway, it slips by before you even realize it has happened. And then it will haunt you.

Well, shit.

Yes, we’ve seen this all before — Greenland is basically Deep Impact + 2012 — but it makes up for its familiarity partly by acknowledging that we’ve seen this all before as it skips right over the taken-for-granted bits. As the movie opens, Comet Day is already upon planet Earth, but our protagonists merely believe we’re in for a good skyshow. Our protagonists are not the NASA scientists who did the calculations that foresaw an extinction-level event or the world leaders with top-secret clearance prepping for humanity’s bare survival — we never meet those people — but regular folk: Atlanta structural engineer John (Gerard Butler: Angel Has Fallen, How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World) and his estranged wife, Allison (Morena Baccarin: Deadpool 2, Spy), who are grudgingly coming together for the birthday of their gradeschooler son, Nathan (Roger Dale Floyd: Doctor Sleep). The kid’s party is interrupted by an emergency alert coming through on John’s phone notifying him that his family has been chosen for evacuation — wait, evacuation from what?! — and that they should report to a military base a few hours’ drive away to catch their mystery flight. Oh, and this same personal alert also popped up on the TV on which they and all their friends and neighbors, gathered for the party, were watching the comet news, and none of them have been invited to evacuate. Catastrophic realization is just beginning to dawn when a comparatively smallish comet fragment hits in Florida, several hundred miles away, and that really ruins the party. The end-of-the-world cat is now well and truly out of the bag, and no one is waiting around for the actual apocalypse to get on with panicking.

If there are astronaut heroes on a crazy last-chance mission to divert the comet, we never learn of it. If there are any journalists finally vindicated after months of investigation into hush-hush trillion-dollar appropriations for black projects, their stories remain untold. Greenland is just John and Allison and Nathan trying to get to that plane, and to any hope of a future. Human drama is centered here, kindnesses and cruelties and mixtures of both as desperation grips the entire planet. One subplot featuring Hope Davis (Captain America: Civil War, Wild Card) and David Denman (Brightburn, Puzzle), in brief appearances, as a couple who give Allison and Nathan a lift when they get separated from John, is incredibly well written and delicately performed, for all that it’s about fear and fluster. It’s a sad reminder of how infrequently such effort goes into these kinds of movies.

Greenland Morena Baccarin
Morena Baccarin’s character has some actually agency here, and isn’t just an object for her husband to rescue.

Screenwriter Chris Sparling, who also wrote the compact and terrifying Buried, keeps finding little notes of horrific grace, as when John — for whom Butler has not disguised his Scottish accent — is unsubtly informed that he does not deserve a place on an American escape flight. (Rumors have quickly spread that the evacuation destination is old Cold War bunkers in Greenland.) Overall, there is the smart sense that everyone is all too aware of how hopelessly grave the situation is, that they seen movies like Deep Impact and 2012 and know that this is, finally, the real thing.

Alas, we’ve also seen Deep Impact and 2012, and this is just another movie for us, one better than it deserves to be, better than we expected, but nevertheless one not, ultimately, with anything new to say. But at least it says the same old thing well.

Greenland yellow light
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