‘Greenland’ or — An Extreme, and Silly, Form of Couple’s Therapy?

(Major spoilers)

The idea (manifesto?) behind ‘Greenland’ (2020) is aggressively simple — Let’s make a Gerard Butler end-of-the-world disaster movie you’ve seen a million times before but lets treat it completely seriously. It’s an immediately idiotic idea considering that often the only thing making these movies bearable, if even that, is their lack of depth. Ironically, ‘Greenland’s search for gravitas simply reveals how inherently ‘meh’ the end of the World can be. Just ask the dinosaurs.

The film’s first half isn’t too bad (although this two hour movie is certainly 30 mins too long) as Butler and his family desperately attempt to reach the transport plane they’ve been allocated places on which will fly them to underground bunkers in Greenland so they can survive an extinction level comet impact. And that’s it. Nothing that Emmerich, etc haven’t been doing for years by now.

‘Greenland’s “original” approach to this material is now, however, decidedly clichéd as it does the whole ‘Cloverfield’ (2008)/’War of The Worlds’ (2005) device of keeping it hand-held and intimate, the camera never leaving our protagonists or pulling out to reveal the wider view. Any images of the bigger picture are glimpsed on TV screens. It also has that ‘people constantly shouting’ thing going on (that type of sonic tension which replaces genuine drama in these films), an escalation of terrible events happening (fire/frying pan trope) and, most importantly, a young kid with a medical condition who is dependent on some form of medication so, again, drama can be artificially generated whenever needed.

So nothing new here in the slightest. Yet the movie makes up for all this with its energy and execution, providing a quite unnerving sense of inescapable doom combined with witnessing societal panic and collapse. It’s doing nothing new but it has enough self-awareness to provide a few fresh angles to the material. All fine, all perfectly watchable.

And then Scott Glenn turns up and the entire movie seems to start smacking itself in the face as hard as it can.

You see, Glenn’s character (he plays the wife’s father) is a problem because he is an asshole and is so obviously shoved into this story because, as the producers would claim, it’s all about family and conflict (why does everything have to be about “family” these days?). That’s fair enough, but only if we actually care about the family we’re seeing on screen and not only did I want Glenn’s character not to survive the movie but I was actively hoping he wouldn’t even make it past lunch.

When he appears his first words are to accuse his son in law of having an extramarital affair and it is here we suddenly discover that this is what the movie is actually “about”. The filmmakers would again claim this gives the story heart plus dramatic conflict but it just feels shoe-horned in for the sake of unearned “emotional heft”. It feels lazy and is even more frustrating because with the world tearing itself apart there’s no end of possibilities for genuine drama elsewhere.

So that’s the human drama at the “heart” of this movie: an affair. We’ve never heard of this affair until now, it has no impact on the characters in the slightest and doesn’t get resolved apart from a “I forgive you but only because it’s the end of civilisation so my chances of meeting anyone else have now been reduced to practically zero”.

This is combined with an ending which is, bizarrely (although also de rigour for almost any American film of this type), one of hope and optimism with the climax being, essentially, a happy one because Butler and his family have overcome their marital problems… even though the entire planet and most of humanity has been destroyed (or has it?). But their marriage has been saved. Yay!

‘Greenland’ is a frustrating movie because for the first half it seems to do a decent job of dodging and swerving the most egregious clichés which usually rain down on these movies like meteor fragments, but only for it to then steer fully into them in the last half, embracing them like lovers an airport. ‘Greenland’ might have avoided certain overplayed tropes of spectacle and catastrophe but all the human drama beats are as by the numbers as they come.

Although I think the reason ‘Greenland’ has been quite well received, apart from the fact it’s not that bad, is down to the its portrayal of the emergency services which is very positive and encouraging. The military, rescue services, medics, nurses etc are all shown fearlessly doing their job and with a real concern for the people they’re helping even though they know they won’t be surviving any of this, and what with everything happening today that aspect feels pertinent, relevant and important. It shows how society, even if the world is falling apart, can be still be humane, that there is such a thing as sacrifice and that these sacrifices carry on all the time, even when there isn’t a comet about to destroy the planet. If the movie had focused a little more on this, rather than following a family lucky enough to survive Armageddon (just because, you know, “family”), I think ‘Greenland’ could’ve had more emotional resonance and honesty. As it is it just feels too contrived to care about Gerard Butler and his wife using the destruction of the entire planet as a convenient form of marriage therapy.

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Comedy writer, radio producer and director of large scale audio features.

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Colin Edwards

Comedy writer, radio producer and director of large scale audio features.