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Movie Review – Greenland (and other disaster films)

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Disaster movies are my favorite genre. Don’t get me wrong, they’re not the best movies in the world by far. But damn good entertainment. Considering the genre as a whole, I think Greenland lands comfortably in the top third.


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Mild spoilers ahead.

Dramatic, but not overly so

One commonality among many disaster movies is the melodramatic survival story. This is a common place where writers/directors often go overboard in disaster movies by trying to make every moment its own disaster.

For instance, in an overly dramatic movie like 2012, just taking off in a plane turns into a hugely dramatic event. I’ll be the first to admit that the scene in 2012 of the small plane taking off from the regional Los Angeles airport was really satisfying. But then they went on to include two more dramatic takeoffs and one dramatic aircraft landing. It got to be a bit much.

Contrast that with Greenland, where there was plenty of opportunity to add a dramatic takeoff scene—with the pilots struggling to gain altitude while clipping tree tops—but they passed on that, and all we see is the plane successfully taking off from a distant vantage point.

Injecting personal disasters into natural disasters

It feels like a tired trope that disaster movies feature husband and wife main characters who are separated when the movie begins.  Then throughout the movie the relationship is magically repaired as the disaster drama mounts.

Greenland opens by introducing the two main characters: John and Allison, a married couple who are separated. (Oh no, not this again.) It feels like the story is going to revolve around a man fighting to save his family and his marriage and all the overly dramatic scenes that entails, but fortunately, the story doesn’t get bogged down with this plotline. In fact, I think it was brilliant to physically split the main characters apart during part of their travels, to give each their own independent struggles. Otherwise, the entire story would have been about the husband taking care of the wife time and time again, to earn back her love.

Kudos to writing Chris Sparling for pulling on all the right plot threads to increase the tension and drama, without pulling so hard the story comes unraveled. Chris Sparling also wrote the fantastic movie Sea of Trees, which is a real sleeper starring Matthew McConaughey, Naomi Watts, Ken Watanabe.

People are the real danger in a disaster movie

A nice touch this movie really gets right is the depiction of how people will react under survival circumstances. It isn’t all panic and every man for themselves. Of course, there is plenty of that, but there are also many nuanced reactions by different groups of people that make this feel real.

One subtle thing I noticed was that the majority of good Samaritans are either black or immigrants. There are lots of military personal characters who have a one-scene part with just a few lines. Nearly every military character taking a personal interest in the main characters is black. Then there’s a group of Mexicans who help one of the characters, and when a group of people raids a drug store it’s a black man—part of the raiding party—who helps the main characters to safety.

Basically, nearly every minor character that is sympathetic isn’t Caucasian. On the other hand, the two total shithead characters in this movie that illustrate the worst of humanity when it comes to matters of survival are both Caucasian. I can’t help but feel that the director wanted to make a very subtle statement. I just wonder how many people notice.

The physics of impacts

I’m not an expert, but I think they did a realistic job depicting the damage done by the impacts: everything from smallish impacts that only have a blast radius of a few meters, up to the massive impacts that destroy entire states. A nice touch was the scene of reentry debris. I haven’t seen that in a movie before, but that’s where it rains small debris in a concentrated area that was blown up into the atmosphere from a distant impact.


The main characters, Morena Baccarin (Firefly, Deadpool) and Gerard Butler (300, Olympus Has Fallen, London Has Fallen), both did a fine job. Nothing award-winning, because it’s not that kind of movie. But they both did the job needed to make their characters sympathetic and realistic. Specifically, I think Morena did a fantastic job in various highly emotional scenes.


There are only two aspects I could nitpick. First is time compression. It just feels like with everything the characters went through, it’s a real stretch that they could possibly make the trip in time. Perhaps I’m wrong and the writer/director had everything mapped and timed out, but it felt like there were jumps where characters made it farther than they should have been able to. So the transitions in time and space could have been clearer.

The last point to nitpick is fuel. They never stop for gas. That’s going to be a huge problem because gas is going to be non-existent very quickly.

In a disaster movie such as this, if transition scenes and fuel are the only things I can find to nitpick about…then I’d say job well done.

Grade: B+
My grade is an overall assessment of the movie compared to all movies. But if I were grading it only in comparison to other disaster movies, I’d bump it up to an A.

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2 responses to “Movie Review – Greenland (and other disaster films)”

  1. Great discussion on the nature of disaster films. They are a genre I always, always enjoy. As you know: we have the same taste in movies! Point taken about the estranged couple angle in this genre. I think that started in Twister?

    BTW, Twister is a great movie as far as disasters go. It still holds up. Dan, what grade would you give Twister, both in and out of the genre?

    Disasters and Dystopias. Survival stories. For some reason these never get old. Not sure what this says about me!

  2. Twister is a good one. They get a lot right, but then fail miserably in other places. Like at the end when the two main characters are holding on for dear life as the tornado passes over them. Not only would they be unable to hold on, but assuming they weren’t hit by any debris the sand and gravel flying past ot 200+ mph would strip their skin off. So yeah, that bothers me.

    But on the other side, they really nailed the “calm before the storm” feeling and a few other aspects. So it’s a mixed bag.

    I think just because Twister has so many fun moments and memorable lines it might barely qualify for the top 1/3rd. I’d really have to put a bunch of disaster movies together and sort them out.

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