Michael Bay’s Pandemic Thriller ‘Songbird’ Is One of the Worst Movies of the Year
The first Hollywood feature shot in L.A. during the ongoing pandemic is about as bad as a pandemic-shot movie could be.
The first feature film shot in Los Angeles during the pandemic, Songbird imagines a 2024 in which the airborne virus has mutated and mankind is suffering through its fourth year of a never-ending quarantine crisis. That’s not exactly a premise fit for escapism, and with an actual COVID-19 vaccine on the imminent horizon, it’s also a conceit that makes this Michael Bay-produced thriller feel at once of-the-moment and slightly antiquated, presenting a vision of a post-apocalyptic near future that’s already been reduced to the realm of fantasy.
Reality, though, isn’t the province of Bay, who as usual goes for the exploitative jugular. A Cloverfield-style B-movie in which human contact is the real monster, Songbird (on VOD on Dec. 11) has been designed solely to prey upon our current fears about the pandemic nightmare, delivering cliched characters, formal flash, and a mundane race-against-time narrative that wouldn’t warrant the least bit of attention if not for its contextual timeliness. As directed and co-written by Adam Mason, it’s a middling genre effort with nothing to offer except the terrifying idea that COVID-19 will never be vanquished, resulting in uninhabited streets, ubiquitous gas-masked military patrols, and Americans living out their lives in scary isolation, disconnected from everything and everyone they care about and existing in a state of constant panic that their smartphones’ virus scans will be positive, leading to their abduction by “sanitation” units who’ll deposit them in internment camps known as Q-zones.
In this reality, the only people free to roam about as they please are those immune to the virus, such as Nico (Riverdale’s KJ Apa), a “munie” bike messenger who drops off packages at houses by leaving them in mailbox-like UV sanitation units. Sweaty, scruffy, floppy-haired, and often shirtless, Nico is a fun-loving rebel who plays basketball on desolate freeways and chats jokingly with his boss Lester (Craig Robinson), whose private delivery service has an apparent monopoly in the City of Angels. What’s become of Amazon, Walmart, and their titanic industry brethren is a question left unanswered by Songbird, which provides just enough particulars about its set-up to keep the material moving forward but otherwise remains limited in scope, detail, and imagination, refusing to impart a larger sense of the ramifications of this plague on the world.
Thanks to a story constructed around ongoing COVID-19 restrictions, Songbird largely keeps its characters physically separated, communicating via video chats that, like so much of the action, is filmed in extreme shaky-handheld close-up. Such an aesthetic is at once apt and unbearable, with Mason’s camera lurching about to create a phony impression of anxiety and tension. What one wouldn’t give for a static establishing shot at any point during this helter-skelter affair. Still, at least the film is free of producer Bay’s more frustrating signatures, such as cornball humor, not-so-subtle racism, and incessant product placement, the last of which is presumably absent because this fictionalized pandemic has more or less destroyed capitalist enterprise.
How these perpetually quarantined Angelenos get adequate supplies of food or household goods is one of many lingering issues ignored by Songbird, which instead focuses on Nico’s from-afar romance with Sara (Sofia Carson), a budding artist holed up in an apartment with her grandma Lita (Elpidia Carrillo). Nico and Sara engage in lots of lovey-dovey conversations on their phones and through her residence’s front door, both of them pining for the day that he can get her an immunity bracelet and they can run off to, well, somewhere on the other side of the makeshift wall surrounding L.A.
Their plan is thrown for a loop when Lita falls ill, because it means that Sara is now also destined to be picked up by the sanitation department, which is run by greasy, gleefully murderous Emmett Harland (Peter Stormare), a role that allows Stormare to chew scenery in amusingly Stormare-like fashion. In response to this catastrophe, Nico goes in desperate search of immunity bracelets, and his quest puts him not only in direct contact with Sara but also with his wealthy customers Piper (Demi Moore) and William Griffin (Bradley Whitford), the latter of whom is carrying on an affair with online singer-songwriter May (Alexandra Daddario), who’d rather be chatting with fan Dozer (Paul Walter Hauser), a wheelchair-bound Afghanistan war vet with a handy and surprisingly deadly drone.
All of these threads eventually converge in a way that feels at once hopelessly contrived and pitifully narrow; it’s as if these are the only individuals still living in the metropolis, save for the hordes of faceless stormtroopers. Worse, they’re about as empty as the many deserted freeways depicted by Mason. Only Stormare brings any personality to the proceedings, ranting at one point that munies such as himself are “not human anymore. We’re gods!” and remarking that quarantine disobedience is “spreading like a tornado.” Alas, he’s frequently relegated to the sidelines so more attention can be paid to Nico and Sara, two ciphers whose defining characteristics are an oft-unclad body (his) and an earnest smile (hers).
Moore and Whitford, meanwhile, drearily bicker in the lead-up to a finale in which Whitford’s William suddenly transforms into a maniac—a left-field twist that would be more jarring if anything about Songbird registered as three-dimensional. The film squanders every opportunity to flesh out its scenario, leaning so heavily on its socially distanced, Zoom-ified style and its performers’ huffing and puffing that it renders itself a gimmicky exercise in pandemic-protocol production. It’s a project destined for amusing time-capsule status, although viewed right now, it resounds as goofy and false, not least because it envisions a domestic population willing to lock itself down for an indefinite period of time—something that a large segment of this country has refused to do, even in the face of skyrocketing death tolls.
“Sometimes, we have to do things we don’t want to survive,” Piper tells her sickly daughter toward the film’s conclusion, thereby supplying a handy justification for why so many talented actors opted to risk COVID infection to participate in this disposable venture. Experiencing the film on VOD, of course, poses no such health danger—at home, the only thing one will lose is their patience.