Songbird holds the distinction of being the first movie to film in Los Angeles since the 2020 pandemic shutdown. It also has the distinction of being one of the most misguided and tone-deaf movies of the year.
Set in the near future of 2024, the U.S. is in full lockdown mode with required daily health check-ins because COVID-19 has become the even deadlier COVID-23. Citizens of Los Angeles are confined to their homes unless they have developed immunity, in which case they are granted a pass—a bracelet that allows them to move about somewhat freely in their near-empty city. The sick are moved into “Q-Zones” where they are cut off from the rest of society and essentially left to die.
Enter Nico (K.J. Apa), a courier for the enterprising Lester (Craig Robinson), who spends his days running packages to those in isolation. With his lady love Sara (Sofia Carson) quarantined with her abuela, theirs is a romance that unfolds over FaceTime and on either side of a closed apartment door. With the city constantly patrolled by the army and infectious disease enforcement, Nico and Sara count the minutes until they can be together IRL. When Sara’s grandmother inevitably becomes ill, Nico goes on a hunt for an immunity bracelet for Sara—a hunt facilitated by his wealthy quarantined courier clients (Demi Moore and Bradley Whitford).
It’s as insensitive and formulaic as it sounds.
The movie’s secondary characters are slightly more interesting. Peter Stormare appears as a sleazy government enforcer while Alexandra Daddario is an aspiring songstress developing a digital friendship with wheelchair-bound veteran Paul Walter Hauser. These subplots of Songbird offer more unique storylines which are left largely under-explored.
Inevitably, all these tales and characters eventually converge into a messy, exploitative, and downright dumb story that has no respect for its audience—the majority of whom are still living in a world with tight COVID restrictions.
But being “too soon” is the least of Songbird’s problems.
Using the pandemic as a timely and gimmicky plot point will no doubt rub some viewers the wrong way, but far more insulting is the completely lazy execution. Songbird has nothing new, insightful or even interesting to say about the pandemic or life in lockdown. The film could have taken the time to comment on the number of deaths COVID-19 has caused, especially in the U.S., or it could have delved into the social issues or political decisions that led to the COVID-23 state of affairs. Instead, it saves its shallow message for the very end—if you can even make it that far. Wrapping on a false and syrupy message of “hope”, Songbird seems to exist to fuel wild fake news conspiracies and to exploit viewers’ pandemic anxiety. Despite all that, there is an audience out there for pandemic-set stories even while a backlash against the opportunistic nature of the film grows.
Streaming of Steven Soderbergh’s Contagion soared during the first weeks of COVID lockdown, with the film offering a smart take on a serious virus, bolstered by an A-list ensemble cast. Songbird co-writer/director Adam Mason clearly studied Soderbergh’s film, seemingly selecting a few of the film’s main plot points, putting them into a blender with the top fake news stories and pureeing them into this mess. Sensitivity aside, the execution of the movie is such a thorough failure that it leaves viewers with a laboured bore of a thriller.
Scripted and filmed entirely in the last few months, the rush to get Songbird out is evident in every frame—from gaping plot holes to wooden acting. Produced by Michael Bay, Mason has borrowed the director’s more obvious techniques including low-angle shooting as well as a choppy editing style better suited to explosions than the romantic yearnings of a young courier.
Songbird may have won the race to be the first COVID movie out of the gate, but it certainly won’t be remembered for much more than that.
Songbird is now available on VOD.