' ' Cinema Romantico: Greenland

Monday, May 24, 2021


Despite Ric Roman Waugh’s tale of a planet-killing comet being firmly in the disaster movie camp, “Greenland’s” forebearer is not an Irwin Allen or Michael Bay tentpoles nor one of Roland Emmerich’s cornfed Armageddons; no, it’s closest comp is Steven Spielberg’s “War of the Worlds.” Released in 2005, that blockbuster take on the H.G. Wells classic was conscious of its post-9/11 world, literally equating an alien invasion with terrorists at one point, but filtered through the viewpoint of a fractured family, reemphasizing the importance of traditional values amid so much extra-terrestrial unrest. “Greenland” sees its story of a planet-killing comet through the eyes of a fractured family too. But instead of comparing the impending apocalypse to some other exterior threat, it turns it back around on us, one more trip to Maple St. to demonstrate who the monsters really are – us. That’s not new, of course, as “The Twilight Zone” reference suggests, but Waugh gives it more foreboding verve than I might have imagined, at least until a sentimental denouement bound to blockbuster rules.

As “Greenland” opens, John Garrity (Gerard Butler) gathers with his estranged wife Allison (Morena Baccarin), their son Nathan (Roger Dale Floyd) and a group of neighbors to watch television coverage of an interstellar comet passing by Earth. Though the tension between John and Allison is intended as pivotal, it feels off the rack, both in performing and writing, just obligatory conflict that never amounts to much, not even when the script trucks in a nominal reveal later in the movie, not least because Butler can never sell that he might have been something like a half-scumbag up to that point. The real conflict emerges when the Garritys receive an EMS message for emergency sheltering just as it becomes clear the comet is going unexpectedly haywire, their lives decreed as more valuable than their neighbors’ lives right in front of their neighbors’ faces. If Ed (Gary Weeks), the next-door acquaintance sporting a Hawaiian shirt, initially suggests Jimmy Buffett’s comic cameo in “Jurassic World”, squiring those margaritas to safety in the name of a meme, it’s testament to Waugh’s more grave vision that he renders someone so festively dressed as distressed, draining the joke right out of the costuming, leaving you with this strange sight suggesting there is no standard end of the world wardrobe.

The Garrity Family rushes to a military base, their names on this To Be Saved list because of John’s job as a structural engineer, glimpsed in the opening shot if for no other reason than to set up this moment, slated to be whisked away to underground facilities in Greenland that will keep them safe from impending Earthly destruction. John, though, goes back to the car for Nathan’s insulin, separating them and keeping them separated when the people not selected for emergency sheltering, protesting outside the base gates, invade the tarmac. If the insulin is just a means to elevate the family tension by forcing them to find one another, underlining the needlessness of John and Allison’s romantic strain in the first place, Nathan’s diabetes thankfully goes beyond that, keeping he and his mom off the plane too because he is deemed a medical risk ineligible for saving. This is conveyed in “Greenland’s” best scene where an Army Major (Merrin Dungey), brilliantly emitting the air of an overworked middle manager in the middle of an apocalypse, matter-of-factly explains the rules, forced to admit her own family was not chosen to be saved either, the cruel, convincing irony of an essential worker deemed inessential. 

Her mid-level role in the scheme of things also suggests who we don’t see – namely, the President. If normally the Commander-in-Chief would give a Big Speech in a movie like this, he or she is M.I.A., as are other top-level government officials, a smart decision evoking the sensation of not being in this together, the have nots forced to fend for themselves. A fleet of military planes in the sky is like the inverse of the shot from “The Day After Tomorrow” in which birds are flying south, the people in charge knowing what’s up without telling anyone else. Allison is forced to navigated a looted pharmacy with Nathan in tow, demonstrating a full-on breakdown in the social fabric, while one brief respite in his journey to reunite with his wife and son finds John standing near a raging party cheering as comets streak across the sky. He might shake his head, but what other choice do they have, a written-off doomsday cult by default. 

That’s bleak but that bleakness is refreshing, wrestling with the grim inevitable rather than concerning itself with some massive space mission to save the world, the lone scene where Butler plays action hero deliberately clouded by the moment’s moral relativism. Ah, and yet, “Greenland” is a mainstream movie, preventing it from being too bleak. That’s why the action-packed conclusion doubles as heartwarming, in its way, pledging allegiance to its main characters, meaning a movie considering whether some lives are worth more than others sort of unwittingly throws its hands up and admits “Yes?”

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