You might not be in the mood for an apocalyptic disaster movie right now, especially one where the best-case scenario is a long stay in an underground bunker, but here’s Greenland, in which Gerard Butler takes a break from saving endangered presidents to save his family. As a comet brings extinction-level mayhem to the planet, Butler is informed he has been selected for a space in the bunker since he’s a structural engineer – a useful trade, post-apocalypse. So he loads up wife and son in the car and says: “So long, suckers!” to his distraught neighbours, and all those other unskilled Americans rioting and dodging comet chunks in the streets.
Disaster movies are a little like slasher movies: half the fun is seeing who survives and whether they deserve it. The other half is the epic destruction, which the mid-budget Greenland dials down. That leaves us rooting for a privileged, self-interested family who have already got their golden ticket. Things don’t pan out entirely smoothly for them, but do they really deserve our sympathies? Shouldn’t disaster-movie survival operate on some kind of karmic reward system for moral virtue or selfless heroism? The brave medic, the scientist who predicted all this, the spineless coward who finds their inner steel – that sort of thing. Or at best, it’s random luck. Even in heavily rewatched pandemic thriller Contagion, the life-saving vaccine is distributed by birth-date lottery. In the real world, poorer countries are still waiting for their share of the Covid vaccine.
Perhaps the old rules no longer apply. Greenland brings to mind 2012’s The Impossible, which chose to portray the real-life Indian Ocean tsunami of 2004 through the experience of Ewan McGregor and Naomi Watts and their separated family rather than, say, the hundreds of thousands of Asian people who died around them. Accomplished though the film-making was, the focus on the plight of some privileged foreign tourists was at best sympathy-challenging, if not downright insulting.
James Cameron took a blunter approach with Titanic, conveying the reality that first-class passengers had a much higher chance of getting into the lifeboats – even the evil ones, such as Billy Zane. Leonardo DiCaprio’s Jack had heroism, artistic talent and a twinkle in the eye, but Kate Winslet’s Rose had poshness, so she survived.
In a genuine apocalypse we know who the real survivors would be: it would be prepper weirdos like John Goodman in 10 Cloverfield Lane, the gun-toting cannibals of The Road, Mad Max’s wasteland warriors. It will be survival of the most violent. If there’s any justice, when the privileged survivors of Greenland emerge from their bunkers, that’s what will be waiting for them in the sequel.