One of the many horrible lessons of 2020 is that all too often we choose to look out for ourselves even if it means hurting others; that we do not care when we see—or inflict—pain on someone else. Yes, there are some good people out there, but given the choice between your living and their eating a hamburger, a whole lot of Americans will chow down and then blame you for dying as ketchup drips from their chin.
Although it was in the works before the pandemic, the new movie “Greenland” highlights this sad truth. Directed by Ric Roman Waugh with a script from Chris Sparling, this movie finds United States citizens facing impending doom as the remnants of a heretofore unknown asteroid plummet to Earth. We watch as John Garrity (Gerard Butler) and his estranged wife, Allison (Morena Baccarin), attempt to reach safety with their diabetic son, Nathan (Roger Dale Floyd). The Garritys have been chosen, for reasons we don’t initially understand, to be part of a supersecret government relocation program. This affords them a flight to an undisclosed location, presumably (but not necessarily) to keep them safe.
In another year, in another time, it would be a bit of largely unsuccessful fluff. We spend two hours watching as this family, alone and together, do everything they can to make it to their destination. They encounter the occasionally decent human being, but more often than not, the folks they meet are in it for themselves and would kill anyone and everyone if they think it would give them the slightest chance at additional safety. It is an upsetting gut punch of a movie filled with inhumane individuals.
If we as a nation hadn’t watched people shake their fists at the sky about how they need a cut and color and don’t care who dies as long as they can go back to having wavy chestnut locks, the movie would seem farfetched. But we have seen that bit of insanity and it makes “Greenland” feel more normal. It is a movie which depicts a truth that we would all rather avoid.
Honestly, “Greenland” isn’t even terribly original, watching it play out one can’t help but see Spielberg’s take on “War of the Worlds” and wind up surprised that little green men don’t appear before the credits roll. No, it is not great, but it does hit the moment head on.
One of the film’s core notions is that confusion – we are placed there with John and Allison and know what they know, nothing more. So, as information comes in slowly and from unreliable sources, we have to parse it, just as they do, and try to build a complete picture of the problem and potential solutions.
Butler’s career, in tandem with the “War of the Worlds” feel, offers a great example of the problem of our trying to do that. As a viewer, we don’t know who John is, nor what sort of past he has, but we do know that he’s Gerard Butler and this is a movie about the world ending and he’s been chosen for some sort of special relocation thing. So, immediately many (it can’t be just me) will believe that he’s ex-CIA or Green Beret or something. Clearly he has been chosen for a mission (“protect the President one last time” or some such silliness) and so his family gets a pass. That isn’t the tale of the movie and it isn’t even an intentional misdirect, we are, just like John and Allison, trying to piece together the information we have and we make bad decisions because of it.
Our being wrong is great, but too rarely in “Greenland” does that occur for the characters. Their guesses, for the most part, are right. At least, the important ones are. They aren’t right for any particular reason—there is no great bit of unknown logic—they just happen to be right so that the movie can progress. That is backwards, it has to work the other way around – the movie needs to develop logically from their choices, whether those choices are right or wrong.
That is the core disappointment in the film and why it doesn’t work as well as it might. John and Allison operate from a place of no knowledge, from a place full of completely unfounded rumors and total guesses, but just happen to be right. To go back to where we started, one of the lessons of 2020 is that wishing and hoping doesn’t make the problem go away; things don’t magically get better when the weather changes. But, here they do. The movie pulls its punches and is far worse for doing so.
Butler and Baccarin both have powerful scenes in the movie and there is more than one moment that will set the audience on edge. “Greenland” does a great job of establishing a far-fetched problem in a completely realistic manner. The issue is that, at some point, it decides the Hollywood version of the story is the one it wants to tell and that isn’t built into the narrative in successful fashion. Instead, the decision undercuts the whole endeavor, making “Greenland” easier to stomach but further from reality.
This year has shown us that deus ex machina resolutions don’t simply come about. To watch a brutally real movie embrace such a path is disappointing. Just as the awful year of 2020 has had some great moments, there is a lot to like about “Greenland,” but not enough to rate it very highly.
photo credit: STX Entertainment