Pandemic Drama Songbird an Uncomfortable Viral Outbreak Thriller
I do not believe Songbird should exist. Or, more to the point, should exist right now. I get that there are future filmmakers who are going to make thrillers and action movies out of this pandemic. Heck, I’ll bet in a decade (if not less) there will be an all-star HBO three-part miniseries on what we all have been living through since February and it will likely have Emmy nominations and critical platitudes rained down upon it as if it is the greatest production to ever hit television.
Maybe it’s hypocritical, but while some variation of all of that (and more) is going to transpire not too far in the foreseeable future, it still sends icky chills up my spine that producer Michael Bay and director Adam Mason (Hangman) joined forces to make this film. It is a COVID dystopian thriller, shot, edited and released right when we are all still living through all of this, so watching it feels wrong in ways I admittedly cannot quite put words to.
The crazy thing? I didn’t hate Songbird. Heck, had this come out in three or four years, it’s possible I’d give the film a polite, somewhat appreciative pass and move on to whatever might be released next. But right now? In this moment? Mason’s latest is as uncomfortable to sit through as I’m almost certain anyone with a pulse can imagine it would be. As professionally made and acted as it is, the idea that anyone thought this was a good idea to make right now, in this climate, boggles the mind. What else is there to say?
For those who are curious (for the right reasons, not morbidly so), the plot is basic dystopian nightmare fuel. It is 2024. The COVID virus was not contained and has mutated multiple times. Los Angeles is on permanent lockdown with mandatory virus scans every morning utilizing a citizen’s smartphone. If an infection is detected, no matter how serious or life-threatening, the individual along with all residing within their domicile is immediately apprehended by Waste Management and taken to a lockdown zone where they will remain.
Individuals who have been classified as immune are considered essential workers and are free to roam around the quiet and deserted city. Courier Nico (K.J. Apa) is one of those lucky few. He spends his days speeding from one stop to the next, most of his deliveries going to the remaining wealthy elite, a high-profile clientele that includes a former music industry executive (Bradley Whitford), his beautiful wife (Demi Moore) and their 12-year-old daughter (Lia McHugh).
The thriller elements involve Sara (Sofia Carson), a gorgeous twenty-something Nico inadvertently made the acquaintance of during a delivery. The pair have been interacting via social media and face-messaging software for who knows how long, and it’s safe to say that even though they’ve never touched or been in the same room that they’ve still fallen in love. After Sara’s grandmother catches COVID and Waste Management comes calling, it’s only a matter of hours before she’s shuttled off to the lockdown zone, and Nico is going to do whatever it takes to make sure that does not happen.
The stacked supporting cast also includes Craig Robinson, Alexandra Daddario, Paul Walter Hauser and a pitch-perfect Peter Stormare chewing up as much scenery as he can as the despicable head of Waste Management. Lorne Balfe (Bad Boys for Life) supplies a suitably lively score, the visual effects are pretty terrific considering the rushed production schedule and editor Geoffrey O’Brien (Bright) cuts things together with coherent efficiency.
If we were looking at Songbird under normal circumstances, I’d talk about how the relationship between Nico and Sara is cute and charming but equally difficult to fully engage with. I’d also mention how a subplot involving Hauser and Daddario’s characters, respectively portraying an Afghan War vet in a wheelchair who’s a drone-piloting wizard and a wannabe pop starlet who has to make due singing for her remaining fans online to survive, is potentially more interesting than the primary narrative ends up being. There would also be a little bit about Moore, how good her performance is and how nice it is to see the veteran actress back up on the screen.
These are not normal circumstances. With almost 300,000 Americans dead from COVID-19 at the time of this review, Mason’s thriller can’t help but ring far too many alarm bells to be easily passed off as popcorn entertainment. His script, co-written with Simon Boyes (Misconduct), could be construed in some ways as unintentional accelerant for the QAnon-loving, government conspiracy theory set. It pushes buttons that feel ugly and inappropriate, all of which makes giving the film any sort of fair assessment difficult to do.
I guess what I will say is this: I did not hate Songbird. I ended up not feeling like those involved with its production were trying to cash-in on a worldwide tragedy and likely thought they were lending their talents to a B-grade thriller that could give viewers a little bit of enjoyment at an otherwise undeniably bleak moment in history. Be that as it may, I still couldn’t stop that unpleasant feeling from crawling up and down my backbone. Mason’s film lives in this moment, and try as I might I cannot disassociate it from current events. Make of that what you will.
Film Rating: 2 (out of 4)