It was inevitable that Hollywood would attempt to cash in on the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, but the sheer speed in which the Michael Bay-produced Songbird has arrived is impressive. Conceived back in March by Simon Boyes and Adam Mason, Songbird was in production by May, and had wrapped filming by early August. A movie based on the current crisis doesn’t automatically have to be a bad thing, even if it’s a genre movie like this, but Songbird mostly skips its inherently exploitative nature and instead feels like it’s coming from a genuinely misguided place. At worst, it’s more tasteless than overtly offensive, but mostly it’s simply bland and uncomfortable to sit through. Whether you’re campy shlock (which this film certainly dips its toes into) or an arthouse drama, you’ve got to have something to say if you’re gonna be “about” something as devastating and historical as this pandemic, and Songbird simply doesn’t try to reach for anything beyond snark and cynicism.
Set in the year 2024, COVID-19 has mutated and taken millions of lives. The virus is now airborne, martial law is in effect, and a strict lockdown has been in place for quite some time. Those infected with the virus are taken from their homes and placed in quarantine camps, which simply amount to death camps. That’s a bit irksome, considering that the very real detention camps, prisons, and jails across the country are known and uncared for hot spots for virus outbreaks, and I promise you that this movie isn’t empathetic enough to try to put together a parallel to the plight of immigrants and incarcerated people. Nico (KJ Apa), who is very ripped as the film reminds us multiple times, is one of the few people who are immune to the virus, and so he’s allowed to work as a bike courier, delivering packages to rich folks in LA. Nico is desperate to reunite with his girlfriend, Sara (Sofia Carson), who has been stuck in her home with her abuelita (Elpidia Carrillo) since lockdown began. When abuelita catches the virus – which is inexplicable, as we never see her leave the home or stick her head out a window – Nico has to act fast to rescue Sara before she’s whisked away by the government.
This romance by itself is perfectly fine, and to Apa and Carson’s credit, the drama between the two is so intense and dramatic that if you cut everything else from the movie and just set what these two have going on in the modern day, you would have a serviceable enough movie. The pain of isolation and separation from loved ones could be a rather poignant, if not a bit basic, idea, but that once again assumes Songbird has any form of empathy towards people actually affected by what’s going on. The movie instead nearly buries its main romance plot with an unstable amount of characters and subplots. These range from just plain boring to bizarre and confusing. Nico works for Lester (Craig Robinson), who also employs a wheelchair-bound veteran named Michael (Paul Walter Hauser). Michael, who uses a drone to complete his deliveries, spends his free time watching May (Alexandra Daddario), an aspiring singer who livestreams herself from the motel she’s been stuck in since arriving in LA just before lockdown. May is constantly visited by a man named William (Bradley Whitford), a rich client of Lester’s whose relationship with May leads to one of the most genuinely uncomfortable and strangest scenes I’ve ever had the displeasure of watching.
William is married to Piper (Demi Moore), who stays busy caring for their immunocompromised daughter and…look, it’s just too much. Some characters directly cross paths, others don’t interact in any way. One plot thread ends in such a shockingly violent manner that it’s utterly hilarious, and the nonsensical ending of the main story is nearly just as funny. The film features some bizarre performances from its cast, but the only one allowed to really cut loose and have a ball is Peter Stormare, who plays the head of the sinister Department of Sanitation. Stormare chews the hell out of the scenery at every moment. He sells it to the cheap seats. He screams. He sings. Belts, actually. He also loves to stab people. Now that’s the kind of energy that’s desperately needed in something like this. If it sounds like Songbird is a new addition to the so-bad-it’s-good Hall of Fame, you’re sorely mistaken. The fun is few and far between, and the film is simply a dud.
Who this movie is supposed to be for is extremely unclear. Its blatant insistence that government-mandated lockdowns are far worse than a rapidly spreading deadly virus is ironic indeed, considering that the version of the United States that the film is set in appears to actually be a bit better off than where we are now. In Songbird, everyone seems to have been given the means to still survive while quarantining in their homes, which is more than can be said for the catastrophic and unforgivable failure of the current federal government who gave some people $1200 months ago and has offered zero relief since. Perhaps stories like the millions of people currently unable to pay their rent or mortgage or even food for their children due to the lack of care from the people in power isn’t exciting or romantic enough for Hollywood, and a rushed attempt at an action thriller (that’s light on the action) is a safer bet. The world of movies is in the middle of a massive transformation, but Songbird shows that Hollywood’s inclination to churn out insipid garbage that capitalizes on a tragedy is probably never going to change.