The last time Gerard Butler made a disaster movie, it was the atrocious Geostorm. You could be forgiven, then, for approaching Greenland with a sense of skepticism. Happily, this disaster epic is a lot better. Whereas many pictures of this sort are just an empty string of special effects-laden set pieces, this one actually cares about the people enduring the disaster. That elevates it, making even semi-implausible events intense.

In a truly disturbing premise, a comet is barreling toward Earth, and near-total destruction of the planet is guaranteed when it hits. Butler plays John Garrity, a structural engineer with an estranged wife, Allison (Morena Baccarin), and a diabetic son, Nathan (Roger Dale Floyd). He receives a presidential alert on his cell phone, advising that he and his family have been selected to hop a plane and be transported to underground bunkers in an undisclosed location. It isn't initially clear why, but he has no intention of declining the offer.

John and family arrive at an airport, where large military aircraft awaits. He gets separated from Allison and Nathan in the ensuing chaos, setting off a frantic attempt to reunite safely. Plenty of perils emerge along the way. Some are environmental, like flaming comet chunks falling from the sky. Others are human in nature, such as a couple (David Denman and Hope Davis) who haven't been approved for transport and are desperate to board one of those planes.

Greenland has moments of physical catastrophe, which are achieved through strong CGI work. Scenes showing the destruction caused by the comet as pieces of it strike are harrowing. Director Ric Roman Waugh (Angel Has Fallen) plays the impact as realistically as possible, rather than ramping it up to create false excitement, as Geostorm did. That approach keeps the movie grounded, allowing the horror of the scenario to become palpable.

Set pieces are not the center of Greenland, though. The focus is very much on the effect certain impending doom has on the Garrity family and others. Many scenes are devoted to showing the panic that arises at the airport, on highways, and in neighborhoods as mankind faces extinction. John is one of the lucky ones who has a chance of survival; the majority are not that fortunate. One of the most harrowing sequences shows the Garritys trying to leave home, as their neighbors – none of whom got an alert – beg them for help.

Greenland does an excellent job suggesting the pandemonium that would undoubtedly occur in the wake of a world-ending event. Instead of endless scenes of the planet being destroyed, it generates tension through ideas like being separated from your loved ones, dealing with a health issue on the fly, and the guilt that comes from knowing you have a better chance of survival than somebody else. Those are obviously very human concerns. That the film prefers to focus on them is admirable. We put ourselves into the shoes of the Garrity family members, repeatedly asking what we would do in the various situations they face. Good performances, especially from Morena Baccarin, give the story emotional resonance.

The subplot about what caused strain in John and Allison's relationship is frivolous. Greenland gains nothing from having them be estranged at the beginning. And although Scott Glenn is reliable as always playing Allison's dad, his character is underdeveloped. A few minor flaws along those lines don't detract much from the elements that work best. Greenland isn't so much about the world ending as it is about how the characters respond to the world ending. On that count, the film is genuinely nerve-wracking.

out of four

Greenland is rated PG-13 for intense sequences of disaster action, some violence, bloody images and brief strong language. The running time is 1 hour and 59 minutes.