Director Ric Roman Waugh’s Greenland is a ceaselessly dour low-budget disaster story about a structural engineer named John Garrity (Gerard Butler) trying to bring his estranged wife, Allison (Morena Baccarin), and son, Nathan (Roger Dale Floyd), to Greenland, where fortified bunkers suggest the best chance for survival from an advancing comet storm with a “planet killer” hours away. It’s the sort of disaster pic without enough money to show much more than overhead mushroom clouds and the occasionally flattened city. Action sequences are few and far between.

Waugh compensates for the genre’s usual crutches with successive, smartly conceived sequences of dread and despair. Unlike similar innocent-massacring disaster movies like Steven Spielberg’s War of the Worlds, Waugh doesn’t need to show moments of outsized violence to make his statement. Instead we have moments like John driving away from a neighbor family pleading with him to take their child. John is crying. Allison is crying. Nathan is crying. I’m crying as their neighbor screams: “What if it was your son? Would you just leave him behind?” (The Garrity family, all civilians, have received randomized permission for military passage to these bunkers while their neighbors have not.) Sharp, effective, sad. It never stops, either. John isn’t someone special. He has no certain set of skills that make him more capable of surviving — or more worthy. He’s a normal man, and he comes into conflict with normal people who are equally afraid for their children and loved ones.

Everyone John meets is going to die and nothing can be done to stop it.

John has no access to the big picture. Humanity’s demise is told in passing: TV screens, radio alerts (with that triggering alert sound), downbeat NASA bulletins. It’s patient, efficient world-building that seems lost on the generally effects-driven disaster genre. Truthfully, it reminded me most of George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead — lean, mean storytelling about people living through the unthinkable, some of whom don’t seem to comprehend what is happening.

Does Greenland feel like a more difficult watch due to the events of 2020? Well, it’s certainly harder to nitpick the actions of characters who seem to be acting irrationally. At least their crisis is the end of the world rather than being asked to wear an extra piece of apparel and to stop congregating indoors without precautions.

Still, it’s impossible to recommend Greenland to anyone but the most devoted Butler fanatics (among whom we at Midwest Film Journal proudly count ourselves). He’s a consummate performer, and it’s nice to see him play a more measured character after making a career playing big personalities. Butler’s partnership with Waugh already yielded the best film in his long-running Fallen franchise and it bodes well for their future collaborations that the two of them took on something different here. Honestly, I thought John would turn out to be a secret agent or some shit that would help him save his family. Nah. Nothing of the sort.

Greenland is a bleak, low-budget melodrama that works because it’s so aggressively manipulative, not in spite of it. I had a great time marveling at how terrible it made me feel after a year of feeling pretty awful. That’s something of an achievement.