The Only Way Out is Together
With my hometown, the city of Melbourne, Australia, now in the midst of its fourth statewide lockdown due to the current COVID-19 pandemic, the arrival of Songbird feels somewhat fitting. Produced by Michael Bay’s Platinum Dunes production company, Songbird was the first film made during 2020’s mass shutdowns and quarantines — it was conceived in March, greenlit in May, and shot in July of 2020, then released in December in the United States and just recently here in Australia.
While it can be argued that it’s ‘too soon’ to exploit the current pandemic for entertainment, with COVID-19 killing over three million people worldwide thus far, Songbird makes for a fascinating snapshot of a particular moment in time; it’s a film conceived during the pandemic, that’s about the pandemic. We see blocked-off, eerily empty streets in a locked-down LA. People use words and phrases that now mean something to ordinary everyday folk, words that have forever been imbedded into our lexicon, such as ‘quarantine,’ ‘self-isolation,’ and ‘social distancing.’ So, while some might call it tasteless, I found Songbird to be an interesting, Purge-type pandemic thriller that coasts by thanks to a ludicrous plot and a great ensemble cast who are willing to have fun with the film’s silly ‘what if’ set-up. Granted, with vaccines being distributed around the world and millions getting the jab, Songbird is starting to feel more like sci-fi as opposed to a ‘worst-case scenario.’
If you thought 2020 was bad, Songbird opens in 2024, where the good ol’ Rona has mutated into something now called COVID-23, a deadlier strain of the virus that attacks the brain and kills the infected within 48 hours. It’s martial law in the city of Los Angeles, and folks are required to take daily temperature checks via a government app on their phones. The infected are taken from their homes and forced into quarantine camps, known as Q-Zones, where they’re cut off from supplies and basically taken to die. The only people that can leave their houses are those immune to the virus, aka ‘Immunies,’ identified through a special yellow bracelet that confirms their immunity, which they must wear at all times.
Our hero is twentysomething Nico (played by the ever-watchable K.J. Apa), an immune motorbike courier that works for a guy named Lester (Craig Robinson), who seems to be running a one-person empire out of his workshop and keeps an eye on his riders by monitoring their movements via GPS. Nico fills most of his days riding around town, delivering packages to wealthy people, dropping stuff off in their ultraviolet mailboxes without making any physical contact. Nico also has a virtual girlfriend that he chats with through Facetime named Sara (a charming Sofia Carson), whom he’s never physically touched. He visits her daily and sits outside her apartment door, where she lives with her grandmother (Elpidia Carrillo).
One of Lester’s clients is former record executive William Griffin (Bradley Whitford), whose marriage to wife Piper (Demi Moore) appears to have hit rock bottom just as the pandemic began. Piper spends her time caring for their immunocompromised daughter Emma (Lia McHugh), illegally selling immunity bracelets on the side to those loaded enough to afford one. Her husband William regularly claims that he must leave the house (masked up, of course) for ‘work’ but is really sneaking out to have an affair with a young woman named May (Alexandra Daddario), an aspiring singer who moved to the City of Angels to get a record deal but got trapped when the joint shut down. She now makes a living by performing acoustic covers on her Instagram Live, which are streamed by thousands of people who clearly have nothing better to do. May eventually forms a bond with a viewer, a disabled war veteran named Michael Dozer (Paul Walter Hauser), who also works for Lester via a drone he calls Max.
All these players become intertwined when Sara’s ‘Grammy’ catches COVID-23, and the Los Angeles ‘sanitation’ department comes to take both Sara and her nan to the Q-Zone, seeing as they’ve been exposed to the ‘brain-eating’ variant of the virus. Now with time racing against him, Nico must find a way to get the women out of the city before it’s too late.
If that sounds like a lot to cram into the movie’s rather meek 84-minute runtime, director Adam Mason, Blood River (2009), who co-wrote the script with Simon Boyes, does an admirable job in keeping things moving at a breezy, easy-to-watch B-movie pace. Even so, there’s something undeniably unsettling about seeing such a high-gloss thriller rooted in a reality that many of us are facing today, filmmakers toying with our COVID anxieties by showing us how much scarier things could become — imagine having to burn your clothes after going outside in case fragments of the virus seeped into your garments, or even worse, waking with a fever and knowing that your days are numbered. We even see what a lap dance might look like in a COVID dystopia, with Daddario’s May doing the deed dressed in a white bondage-type getup and a transparent protective mask on top of a regular facemask.
Technically, Songbird is very well made, chiefly when you consider it was rushed into production, then filmed and edited when most folks were working from home and adhering to stick distancing rules. Although Michael Bay didn’t shoot any of Songbird, it has his fingerprints all over it — from the frantic editing by Geoffrey O’Brien, Bright (2017), to cinematographer Jacques Jouffret’s orange and teal color palate — making it feel rather Bay-esque in nature.
In terms of performances, everyone does well, even if the cast feels as though they’re all starring in different movies, the disjointed production possibly making the performances very uneven. Sofia Carson, Feel the Beat (2020), plays her part as if she’s in some kind of Romeo and Juliet love story, while Paul Walter Hauser, Richard Jewell (2019), comes off as though he’s in a Clint Eastwood joint. K.J. Apa is effectively playing K.J. Apa, while Demi Moore could very well be the same character from 1993’s Indecent Proposal, just older. The ensemble’s true MVP, however, is the outrageously over-the-top Peter Stormare, Constantine (2005), who portrays Emmett Harland, the head of the city’s Gestapo-type Sanitation Department. Not only does Stormare get the best lines in the film — ‘stay safe, sane, and sanitized’ — but his character gets the most ludicrous backstory, too, having gone from a garbage collector to the boss of a government department because literally, all the other higher-ups died.
Ultimately, Songbird’s very existence is the most interesting thing about it. While it certainly won’t be for everyone — it’ll probably offend more people than it will entertain — Songbird stands as a technical triumph and a flick that’ll be worth revisiting once all this madness has settled down. The movie finishes with shots of our ‘survivors’ driving through the Pacific Coast Highway, Willow Robinson’s ‘Weight of the World’ playing as they relish in their newfound freedom. It ends on a hopeful note, giving me confidence that one day we’ll be able to travel the world again, free from the fears and doubts that have stopped us from truly living our lives.
3 / 5 – Good
Reviewed by Dan Cachia (Mr. Movie)