Greenland: Why Gerard Butler’s Disaster Movie Matters Now

Gerard Butler can’t punch his way out of an extinction level event in the surprisingly affecting Greenland.

Morena Baccarin, Roger Dale Floyd, Gerard Butler in Greenland
Photo: STX Films

Once slated to arrive in theaters long before COVID-19 crash-landed in 2020 and upended the entire world, Greenland stars Gerard Butler as John Garrity, an Atlanta-based structural engineer who struggles to save his family as a planet-killing comet speeds toward Earth. Thanks to his skills, Garrity is one of many otherwise ordinary people who have been selected to hole up in massive underground bunkers in the country of Greenland, in the hope that he and others can emerge unscathed and begin rebuilding after the comet wipes the rest of civilization off the face of the globe.

The journey of Garrity, his estranged wife Allison (Morena Baccarin) and their diabetic son Nathan (Roger Dale Floyd) as they try to reach an Air Force base and catch one of those flights to Greenland is the driving force of the film. The human melodrama is front and center, with the havoc caused by chunks of the comet arriving ahead of schedule relegated almost to the background. Greenland works surprisingly well — it left this writer a bit shaken at points — because it doesn’t flinch from showing us how regular folks will react to the imminent end of everything. Brothers and sisters, it ain’t pretty.

“I think it’s going to be really impactful for people to watch and connect,” says Baccarin. “I think we’ve all dealt with some level of fear and anxiety and the feeling of helplessness and not knowing what’s going to happen. Those are some major themes in our film. Hopefully also (viewers) will feel hopeful for humanity and hold their dear ones close.”

Greenland was originally slated to come out in theaters last June, before a different kind of hell broke loose all over the world and scrapped those plans. Like other films, its release date bounced around a few times, and with no end to the COVID-19 pandemic in sight, STX Films pulled it off the theatrical calendar and will now launch it in the U.S. this Friday (December 18) on premium video-on-demand, to be followed by an early 2021 run on HBO Max.

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For Baccarin, Butler, and director Ric Roman Waugh, whom we speak with separately via phone, Greenland has taken on a whole new layer of meaning and relevance in the wake of the catastrophe that the world has endured with the coronavirus.

Waugh explains, “It was very, very surreal to make a movie and you’re dealing with what you think are all hypothetical scenarios. To me, there was always two monsters in the movie. It was not only Clark (the name given to the comet) that was going to bomb the Earth, but it was humanity itself. What are we capable of as human beings when we’re put into life or death situations?”

It was the environmental nature of the film that helped draw Butler to it.

“I love these kind of movies, but I think it’s hard to avoid them in today’s age,” says Butler, who keeps his natural Scottish accent in the film. “It’s very much at the forefront in any topic anywhere. It’s what’s happening to our planet and the environment, so I felt that even though Greenland was a kind of fun little jaunt, it actually underneath has a very serious message.”

Butler, who starred in the weather-related disaster flick Geostorm back in 2017, thinks that his new entry in the genre is a more elevated piece of work.

“I do feel that this had a maturity to it as a disaster movie,” he says. “It wasn’t Hollywood in any way. It has all the spectacle, but it has so much more depth and meaning. And it very bravely just sticks with this family no matter what. It’s with them, so everything that’s being seen and experienced is all through their lens. That had a very powerful and intense and relentless feel to it, but also kind of beautiful and touching and emotional.”

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Greenland was under development for several years, with Chris Evans initially signing up to star in 2018 and Neill Blomkamp (District 9) directing from a script by Chris Sparling. Even after the film went through some turnover and both Waugh and Butler — who had worked together on Angel Has Fallen — joined the project, the basic premise, structure and character arcs stayed the same.

“We definitely reinvented a bunch of areas that become more contingent on the locations where we were going to shoot, and some subject matter that we wanted to capture,” says Waugh. “But the structure of a man and woman on equal footing, trying to win their marriage back, and then suddenly forced on this journey to the point they’re even separated and in their own way stripped down to their primal state, was something that was in the original script that I really felt passionate about.”

Waugh says that Butler was on board from the start with the idea of showing John Garrity not as a take-charge, two-fisted hero capable of getting his family through anything, but as a competent yet frightened man thrust into a situation over which he has no control and for which he may not have the proper tools to protect his loved ones under such unexpectedly dire circumstances.

“What I love about Gerry is he’s fearless,” elaborates Waugh. “He’s not afraid to show his vulnerabilities, to play a flawed character, to be sensitive — things that I think are more masculine for a man than a lot of the action heroes or characters that I see in today’s movies that are impervious to pain.”

The director continues, “I wanted to go back to what they did in the ‘70s and early ‘80s, where these people were flawed. They dealt with real issues and we related to them because we felt like we were part of them. I loved that about the Garritys — we’re experiencing this event from their perspective, but we can’t stop thinking about ourselves in this situation. How would we deal with these things?”

To that end, much of Greenland plays out on a more intimate scale, with the Garritys encountering obstacles that would almost be mundane in nature — missed phone calls, extensive traffic jams, accidents — if they weren’t happening against a backdrop of impending cataclysm. “I wanted to get a sense of what it was like to be in those situations,” says Waugh. “So instead of watching the Garritys go through a sequence with everything happening around them, you’re actually with the Garritys in that vehicle, hearing and feeling and seeing it the way that they’re feeling and hearing and seeing it.”

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One of the more plausible aspects of Greenland, believe it or not, is the destination the Garritys are trying to reach: a series of bunkers on the island nation in which at least a segment of humanity can survive the extinction level event. Such bunkers, built during the Cold War, may in fact have existed or might still exist, given the presence of the U.S. Air Force’s massive Thule Air Base on the island.

“They were built during the Cold War, for nuclear fallout,” explains Waugh. “Just like we have other bunkers within the continental United States…We’ve been data collecting for 20 straight years, ever since the Patriot Act was passed following 9/11. If you have that data, and you can only save 300,000 or so people out of 330 million, who would you save? You would save people based on skill sets that can rebuild. You would pick doctors and structural engineers, biochemists and farmers.”

Waugh continues, “I love the fact that Gerry’s not, in the movie, some astrophysics scientist guy who’s going to figure out how to do it. No, he’s just the guy that builds buildings. His super power is his heart. It’s his own moral compass in how he’s going to get his family to safety. I thought that was a really interesting way to make this grounded. When we’re in these types of life or death situations, and I think the parallel is COVID, you understand that it’s touching us all. We’re either going to rise above it and be a part of it and be united, or we’re going to cower in our little dark holes and fail.”

While the ending of Greenland leaves the fates of the Garritys and the rest of humanity in a very uncertain place, Waugh says he’s ultimately optimistic that humankind could prevail even in the most unimaginable circumstances: “I believe in humanity. I believe in mankind. And I believe that we’re going to be here longer than the cockroaches. Hopefully, Greenland gives you that sense of hope as well.”

Butler, ending our chat on a lighter note, hopes in some way that viewers watching Greenland — despite the movie’s grim scenario — will be able to forget their and the world’s own real-life problems for two hours. “I think it’s great to be able to escape into another kind of crazy reality,” he offers. “And even though there are similarities and the pandemic’s pretty awful, the planet is not quite being wiped out by a comet. So you go, ‘Well, at least it’s not that bad.’”

Greenland is available via premium video on demand (PVOD) this Friday (December 18).