I have to admit that when I was sitting down to watch Greenland, I wasn’t really expecting much. In fact – I have to come clean – I was more or less looking forward to ‘veging out’ on a Saturday night while looking at Gerard Butler (for whom I do have a bit of a soft spot) do his utmost to save his family from an impending cataclysm.
I did not – I repeat: I did not! – even think I’d spend the next two-hours-or-so bolted to my seat and watching what I can only describe as a love letter to one of my all-time favourite films, the Mimi Leder-directed Deep Impact. As a matter of fact, I think it would be most appropriate to describe Greenland as a film which is to Roland Emmerich’s 2012 what Deep Impact was to Michael Bay’s Armageddon. For lack of a better way to define it, it is a blockbuster-adjacent experiment in tangential escapism that imagines what a massively overstuffed Hollywood disaster film would focus on – big set pieces, bombastic special effects and high stakes – and purposefully chooses to look elsewhere; which in itself is an idea more at home in the hands of arthouse and indie filmmakers, e.g. Melancholia, Another Earth, or Seeking a Friend for the End of the World.
Greenland doesn’t bother itself with the usual dramatic beats found in the likes of big escapist disaster movies, such as multi-stranded narratives involving a multitude of cookie-cutter characters, a plot to avert the impending catastrophe all mixed and matched accordingly to fit in between massive eye-candy set pieces and elevate them dramatically. In fact, the film sports very little, if any, of the tried-and-true disaster fare because it is predominantly pre-occupied with shadowing a single family and hanging onto their shoulders as they are attempting to find shelter and survive an extinction-level event. Granted, the film does occasionally indulge in pyrotechnics and large-scale special effects, but the filmmakers always keep the camera close to the ground. They never pull out to relish in effects-laden money shots that Roland Emmerich and Michael Bay wouldn’t be able to refuse. Instead, they keep their protagonists in the foreground and turn the arguable meat and potatoes of the genre – the oppressively excessive set pieces – into a side salad. And lo and behold, they managed to turn an assembly line disaster blockbuster into a compelling drama with people in its focus. Which is almost exactly what Deep Impact managed to achieve when it was originally released in 1998 as a low-key alternative to the bombastic and preposterous Armageddon.
However, I would be lying if I tried to sell Greenland to you as a timeless achievement in filmmaking. It’s not Citizen Kane; though, I wouldn’t think for a second it was the filmmakers’ aspiration for this film to be anything more than a satisfying and compelling piece of entertainment. It’s not cerebral or subversive in any measure; but it has a soul and a beating heart that will endear a willing viewer, especially one with a nostalgic bone. This is because despite trying to leverage the modern filmmaking toolbox, Greenland feels like a movie made in the 90s. It’s simple, well put together and focused squarely on keeping the action and suspense tethered to a set of likeable and compelling characters, whom we get to accompany as they try to evade death. It is simply fascinating – especially these days – to see a film that leverages the large scale of its genre and (purposefully or incidentally) happens to be so perfectly underwritten and underbaked that it spares the viewer the metric tonne of exposition a typical blockbuster would likely drop on them, or a thunderous overstimulation with special effects.
Greenland just happens to have the perfect amount of human drama, just the right levels of grandeur and scale, and a soul harking back all the way to an era long forgotten. In anything, I wish it had ended exactly three minutes before it did, so as to preserve a modicum of ambiguity as to what happened to the protagonists; which is something I strongly believe Peter Berg would have done, if he had been hired to direct it. As far as disposable entertainment goes, Greenland has the whole caboodle and I’d go as far as to say that it puts to shame most franchise tentpoles, simply because it seems to know the difference between a story and plot; between entertaining with dramatic suspense and with sensory shell shock.