Two new disaster movies, Greenland and Songbird, came out this month. Whether they succeed or not may change the genre’s fate.

Songbird, unfortunately, has none of the above, and it commits the cardinal disaster-movie sin of being dull. The love story is bland, and the production value is shoddy. Viewers see LA look generically bombed-out, but the dreaded Q Zoneswhich sound promisingly ominousare offscreen, relegated to brief news clips. Yawn. The movies MAGA-tinted perspective is ultimately the only vaguely interesting thing about it, a snapshot into a certain state of mind. Songbird also has a depressing apathy towards the virus. Its not the main threat to the characters (the armed government agents are), and curing it is never even floated as an option. Sciences failure is a forgone conclusion, one that makes Songbird one of the most baldly cynical movies in recent memory.
But its not the only disaster flick out on VOD this month. Theres also the Gerard Butlerled Greenland, which follows Butlers hero as he attempts to get his family into a bunker before space debris wipes out life on Earth. (Where is the bunker, you ask? Well, the movies not called New Zealand, is it?) Unlike Songbird, Greenland was shot before the pandemic and had its release date pushed back. It is in every regard a relic from another era.
Greenland is a competently made thriller, albeit one that doesnt seem particularly freshits essentially a mashup of 2012 (all of humanity will die except a chosen few), Deep Impact (space-based calamity, everyone is very somber), and San Andreas (estranged husband and wife rekindle their love during a giant crisis). Its distinguishing factor: a rare willingness to show its characters acting unheroically for large stretches of the movie.
As asteroids begin to hit Earth, Butlers John Garrity and his wife Allison (Morena Baccarin) find out theyve been selected to be saved, whisked away to an apocalypse-proof bunker with their young son. They find out because their smart TV plays a message for Garrity while they are hosting a party for their neighborhood buddies, so the whole house hears. Their friends are understandably upset and scared that their hosts were chosen, but not themits clear anyone not chosen will die a horrible deathand even more upset when Garrity and Allison shrug apologetically and get ready to leave without worrying much about them.
Then the Garritys get separated at the airport due to poor decisionmaking, leaving Allison with their son. She is unable to fend off kidnappers, screaming as her child is taken from her and she is thrown out on the side of the road alone and helpless. For his part, Garrity is only able to reunite with his family after committing a startlingly brutal act of violence. These jagged, realistic edges save Greenland from feeling like a complete rehashing of older movies, and it might have turned into something really special had they leaned into them even harder and let the characters really get warped by their experiences. Instead, it gets a very Hollywood ending.
Greenland is the best disaster movie of the year, but thats not saying much; the majority of would-be blockbusters have been postponed, so it has little competition, even within its own genre. Even before the pandemic, disaster movies were in a funk, and now their fallow period could mark a turning point. Apart from a few Dwayne Johnson vehicles, like 2015s San Andreas and 2018s Skyscraper, the big-budget shock-and-awe disaster movies so dominant in the mid-90s havent cycled back into popularity recently. (Gerard Butlers previous foray, 2017s Geostorm, wound up flopping hard.)
Instead, the dominant action movies of the past 20 years have been superhero films, which are a distinct genre, though they also almost always contain spectacular set pieces in which cities are destroyed and mass casualties endured. With already popular franchises like Star Wars and the DC universe demanding huge chunks of studios production budgetsand audiences attention spansits harder to get one-off spectacles up and running. Tents can only have so many poles, after all.