GREENLAND

Producers: Basil Iwanyk, Sébastian Raybaud, Gerard Butler and Alan Siegel   Director: Ric Roman Waugh   Screenplay: Chris Sparling   Cast: Gerard Butler, Morena Baccarin, David Denman, Hope Davis, Roger Dale Floyd, Andrew Byron Bachelor, Merrin Dungey, Gary Weeks, Holt McCallany and Scott Glenn   Distributor: STXfilms

Grade: C

In his latest mid-range action-disaster movie, Gerard Butler can’t save the world, as he usually does, but does rescue his family as the earth collapses around them. “Greenland” is a lot like “San Andreas” with a comet instead of an earthquake  and far more mundane special effects; it’s essentially a soapy family drama set against the backdrop of an apocalyptic catastrophe.  The only film that managed to make that mixture work effectively has been “The Impossible,” which was of course based on a true story; “Greenland” is true only as a human-centered reiteration of what apparently happened to the dinosaurs.

As Chris Sparling’s script opens, the world is faced with the fact that a comet is streaking toward a close encounter with earth.  Someone has named the collection of rock fragments Comet Clarke, and news reports are blithely emitting official assurances that the chances of serious damage are slim.  They’re lying, of course: the U.S. government has plans in place to airlift pre-selected citizens to shelter in Cold War-era underground bunkers before predicted devastation ensues. 

Among the families chosen for survival before the rocks—some little, some gargantuan– obliterate most of humanity by hurtling to earth are the Garritys of suburban Atlanta.  John (Butler) is a structural engineer, which presumably is why he was selected—skill in rebuilding, after all, will be required in a post-comet environment.  His marriage to Allison (Morena Baccarin) is unfortunately on the rocks, but he’s come back to the house they shared to celebrate the birthday of their cute-as-a-button son Nathan (Roger Dale Floyd), whom they both adore.

Sadly, the festivities are ruined when the first large comet fragment annihilates Tampa and a presidential alert summons the Garritys to drive to an Air Force base for transport to an undisclosed locale; they have to maneuver through a phalanx of sobbing neighbors who are among the vast majority of unselected victims and then take a roundabout route around the clogged highways to reach their destination. 

And things don’t go well there.  John gets separated from Allison and Nathan when he has to return to their car for the boy’s diabetes medication; in his absence Allison is told that no one with a medical condition is allowed to board, and so she and Nathan leave just as John returns.  Of course he won’t go without them, and departs as well, but now the family is separated.  John will eventually hitch a ride on a truck, while Allison and Nathan are picked up by a couple, Ralph and Judy Vento (David Denman and Hope Davis).  All are headed for the Kentucky ranch of Allison’s dad Dale (Scott Glenn).

But things get even worse for the Garritys.  The Ventos kidnap Nathan, hoping to use him to get on an escape flight, and Allison has to make her way alone.  Meanwhile John gets into a fight with a fellow traveler over his selection bracelet and—well, a man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do, even if he regrets it afterward.  As implausible as it seems (and it seems very implausible indeed), they are reunited, and go off together in an attempt to reach those underground shelters whose location John’s identified.  (It’s comforting to see that even in the midst of mob violence, the Garritys find pockets of humanity, especially among the military.  It seems that all they have to do at a critical moment is to beg somebody to break the rules, and they do.) 

While all this is going on, of course, bits of the comet are falling, some obliterating whole cities and other smaller fragments just creating chaos wherever the Garritys happen to be.  Compared to “San Andreas” and other big-budget disaster flicks, the effects are actually rather modest here—golden flashes in the sky followed by sonic booms and clouds of dust, minor shards slamming into the ground like artillery shells.  Toward the close there are broader vistas of devastation, but they have the look of elaborate posters. 

Otherwise the technical side of the movie– Dana Gonzalez’s cinematography, Clay A. Griffith’s production design—is perfectly adequate, and despite an overlong running-time (a full two hours), the action remains reasonably taut under the hand of stuntman-turned-director Ric Roman Waugh (who also helmed “Angel Has Fallen”) and editor Gabriel Fleming.  David Buckley’s score punches things up as well.

As to the cast, Butler is his customary stentorian self, but no one expects subtlety from him anymore, and Baccarin does the distraught mother routine well enough, while Floyd proves an engaging tyke who can handle his big emotional moments.  Everyone else is pretty much cardboard rote, but Glenn, looking decidedly grizzled, has a few choice moments.

At a time when big action movies are a fairly rare commodity, “Greenland” may be enough for viewers feeling starved of them.  But in reality it delivers more suds than thrills.