Since the first time I’d heard of Songbird I was a little drawn to it. I suppose that may make me a masochist but there’s something about surreal Hollywood storytelling for current and recent events that I get somewhat excited for. The movie, set in 2024, sees the latest mutation of the coronavirus leaving 110 million dead globally since the start of the pandemic. The virus, now COVID-24 (“new year, new strain,” a streamer muses), is airborne and deadly in 48 hours which means everyone is in lockdown indefinitely, giving rise to those with natural immunity as the only ones that are allowed under martial law to even go outside their homes.
From the start the vacant city streets of LA and inventive UV sanitation boxes for packages had me hoping that we were looking at more than just your basic science fiction horror thriller and I even began to get into the way the film was interlocking character stories. The story followed two lovers, Nico and Sara (KJ Apa and Sofia Carson), who met during the COVID lockdown and have never properly met or dated in person. Nico, immune to the virus, is a courier with a special bracelet that lets him walk around in the outside world, but because the virus has gone airborne, lives by the strict restriction of living alone, being that his job is the equivalent of walking into a minefield for anyone he could visit. COVID-24 is more apt to being on surfaces, packages, and clothing and Nico could potentially spread the virus unknowingly.
It’s kind of smart, but it’s also really lazy. I guess if we were able to adapt in three years to make UV lights to kill the virus on the packages, shouldn’t we have come up with an anti-contamination protocol for these couriers? And to that effect, there are other requirements one would expect to find based on an airborne disease of this nature or, at the very least, super-cautious or germophobic people taking things to the extreme by putting plastic sheeting over windows and doors. I guess what bothers me on that end is that a film that is trying to base itself on story perspectives shares very little in the very real ways that people adapt to situations. Also you’d probably think that Nico must live like a king being a courier with this level of immunity—guess again. Nico has a boss, Lester (Craig Robinson), that sends him all over the city delivering packages, why he’s in charge and the guy with the immunity isn’t commanding a higher salary in this not-so-far-off dystopian LA, I have no idea.
Next in Songbird, we meet opportunistic power couple William and Piper Griffin (Bradley Whitford and Demi Moore), who are moving black market wristbands at the tune of 150 thousand a pop, just trying to keep their heads above water in their large estate while worrying for their immunodeficient daughter, Emma (Lia McHugh). The Griffins are used mainly as the top-shelf villains in Songbird, not getting their hands dirty but leaving that to the head of the sanitation department, aka the boss of the cleanup crew, Emmett Harland (Peter Stormare), who is also in the Griffins’ pocket.
The final story that intersects the previous two is that of May and Dozer (Alexandra Daddario and Paul Walter Hauser). May is an aspiring singer/songwriter trying hard to make it in an LA that has no open music venues and has settled into web channel performances for people like Dozer, a veteran of the Afghan war who also works for Lester.
I tried extremely hard to like Songbird and for the first 30 minutes, I think I did. The movie was showing some creativity and some patience, it wasn’t all together but it was doing better than I anticipated. When the film started to delve into the main plot where Sara’s grandmother Lita (Elpidia Carrillo) gets sick and Nico tries to save them from a fate in a Q Zone or quarantine internment camp, I noticed this story was the one I was least interested in. The ancillary stories were far better, criminally under-realized, and could have created great drama in framing how people from different walks of life can connect to each other—something the film seems interested in doing only logistically over mobile devices.
The ending is specifically eye rolling, undoing a lot of the character motives over the last 85 minutes and is never actually explained. Not to mention an awkward Shawshank Redemption Zihuatanejo moment between Nico and Lester that actually plays more like a call for people to leave their houses and disobey current COVID restrictions, coming at a time when states are starting to tighten those restrictions. Maybe I read too much into the ending, but it was an awkward, cringeworthy moment.
Overall, the word I would use to describe Songbird is “generic.” Sure, there’s some good bits in here—it is actually surprisingly better than the cringes its trailer provided—but that doesn’t mean it’s good. Honestly the film’s COVID bits are more like adjective filler after-the-fact. The script by Simon Boyes and Adam Mason feels mostly like the virus is just the unnecessary background device to much of what was written. Here we have these two characters trying to escape life in LA, here we have the powerful man with a badge, over there a rich couple with issues, and there’s Magnolia’s Melora Walters and John C. Reilly as played by Alexandra Daddario and Paul Walter Hauser. It realistically comes off as part Paul Haggis’ Crash, part Magnolia with the backdrop of 28 Days Later, and the result is wholly unoriginal and disappointing given the peculiar time we live in.
Songbird will likely come off as a gimmick or as exploitation to most people, rubbing them the wrong way or maybe seeing the film as being released too soon or in bad taste being that we’re still in the middle of this global pandemic and they may be right. Originally Songbird was slated for an April 2021 release and the studio may be jumping the gun to claim the mantle of the first COVID movie. The next may end up being Doug Liman’s heist comedy Lockdown slated for release on HBOMax in early 2021. The stark reality is that this will likely only be the beginning of what we can assume will be a wave of films based on our current circumstances. This pandemic is a part of our culture and will one day be a part of the history that shaped our future and like it or hate it, films will be made that center around that.