Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

"Waugh understands that a blast wave shattering windows on a suburban street is a far more powerful image than yet another shot of the White House exploding."

A man knocks on a door. When he doesn't get an answer, he awkwardly fishes a key out of his pocket and turns it in the lock. It's simple scene that tells us two things. First of all, the man used to live here and doesn't any more but is still on amicable terms with the person who does. Secondly, director Ric Roman Waugh has an economic approach to filmmaking which promises a significantly richer experience than the average disaster movie.

The man in question is John (Gerard Butler). He's separated from wife Allison (Morena Baccarin) but has come to collect their son Nathan (Roger Dale Floyd) so they can spend some time together. When the two are in the supermarket, however, John gets a text message from the Department of Homeland Security. It tells him that he and his family have been selected for a place in a shelter and must get to their airport as soon as possible.

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An asteroid has been visible in the sky for some days. Newscasters have been reassuring the public that it's harmless; it's breaking into pieces and none of them will be big enough to do serious damage. Driving home, seeing military vehicles on the move, John knows that last part isn't true. He's a practical man who knows that in a situation like this there's no point in being sentimental about home, possessions, friend or relatives. He has to collect Allison and get the three of them on the move as soon as possible. If that wasn't clear from the text message alone, it's clear when they see the news about what has happened due to a fragment hitting Florida.

This practical approach means no time is wasted in the set-up. It doesn't mean that we get no sense of the emotional impact of what's happening. Butler has a more varied background as an actor than many action fans appreciate, and gives us a hero who can do what he has to do without losing touch with his humanity, a man who can carry us through these events whilst aware of how horrific they are. Despite his size, he's not a fighter, seeking to avoid confrontation. Allison is the more combative of the two, though she's not too proud to plead when occasion calls for it. Baccarin has been waiting a long time for a role like this and gives it her all. With a young child of her own, she communicates Allison's terror of harm befalling her son with a rawness that's totally alien to the genre and heartrending to watch.

The film splits the action fairly evenly between its two leads as events separate them and force them down different, desperate paths, all the while trying to reunite and find safety. Naturally, the increasingly catastrophic news broadcasts result in social breakdown. We meet helpful people in unexpected places and plenty of ruthless people too. Wild rumours are circulating everywhere and it's often hard to determine the best course of action. John comes to believe that he was selected because he's a structural engineer. The young black man who suggests this explains that his mother was selected because she's a doctor - yet when we see the people being sent to shelters, they're overwhelmingly white.

The plot relies on some unlikely coincidences, but these are better managed than in most similar fare. There's a scattering of genre clich├ęs and patches of cheesy dialogue, especially during scenes focused on family, but the pace is strong and we don't linger there for too long. Social observations are nicely woven into the background. The disaster-related effects are simple but effective. Waugh understands that a blast wave shattering windows on a suburban street is a far more powerful image than yet another shot of the White House exploding.

Greenland makes an interesting choice for the film's title and the location of promised refuge - a country whose very name stems from a false promise made to settlers, and one which brought those settlers a slow doom. This and the film's parting shots signal a rather less idyllic future than many survivalist tales. Waugh is aiming for a different tone, and with many viewers reeling from the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic, this seems more fitting. Whilst this film charts familiar territory, it does it well, and in a difficult time to talk about mass loss of life, it emerges as one of the best disaster movies for years.

Reviewed on: 07 Feb 2021
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A family struggle to survive as an asteroid breaks up in Earth's atmosphere and sends deadly fragments crashing down.
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Director: Ric Roman Waugh

Writer: Chris Sparling

Starring: Gerard Butler, Morena Baccarin, Roger Dale Floyd, Scott Glenn

Year: 2020

Runtime: 119 minutes

Country: US, UK


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