Take a moment, just a moment, to offer some sympathy for the filmmakers behind Songbird. If people remember it at all, it will be as “the Michael Bay pandemic thriller.” The divisive über-director’s name is certainly there in the credits of the first mainstream movie to directly address the COVID-19 pandemic, but it’s as a producer. Bay did not write or direct Songbird; it’s no more “his” than A Quiet Place, which he also produced.
For that matter, there are long passages where “thriller” is a questionable description of this movie, too. It is one, at least nominally. It has some chases, scuffles, and races against the clock. But a lot of Songbird plays more like one of those social-hyperlink movies from the 2000s, like Crash or Babel, where pieces of a star-studded ensemble connect with each other, but never come together as one. This is an apt format to revisit in socially distanced times, especially in this movie’s heightened version of recent events. In the world of Songbird, COVID-19 continued to mutate over the course of four years; the movie picks up with COVID-23 demonstrating even more lethal and faster-acting effects. Anyone with the illness is snatched up by “sanitation” workers and sent into mandatory government quarantine. Others are confined to their houses. The few who remain immune (“munies,” people call them) can roam around with impunity, provided they keep their official bracelets handy.
In one mordant detail that feels right, it seems that the main thing munies can do with their freedom is ride around delivering packages to everyone else. That’s what Nico (K.J. Apa) does, with plenty of pit stops to take in the scenery and place video-calls to his girlfriend Sara (Sofia Carson), who he has never met in the flesh — they’ve never gone further than conversing from opposite sides of her apartment door. The pandemic has turned everyone into shut-ins, like Dozer (Paul Walter Hauser), a paralyzed, drone-piloting vet who also works for Nico’s boss Lester (Craig Robinson).
One of Lester’s clients is William Griffin (Bradley Whitford), a record exec who works with his wife Piper (Demi Moore) to provide black-market immunity bracelets for a hefty price. William also makes secret visits to May (Alexandra Daddario), a singer who moved to Los Angeles at the outset of the pandemic, and is now more or less trapped in her motel room. When Sara’s grandmother gets the virus, Nico races to save her from being carted into quarantine. Some characters cross paths. Others never meet. And thanks to the pandemic, some cross paths while still not really meeting.
This could have been a clever jumping-off point, but director and co-writer Adam Mason doesn’t seem much interested in cleverness, or the human connections he pretends to lament in their absence. The movie more often fixates on simulating digital-era immediacy by zig-zagging the camera around the characters and frequently cutting to cell-phone and drone footage. It’s supposed to look both intense and cramped. Much of the time, though, it looks more like Mason is hell-bent on keeping the tops of his actors’ heads out of frame whenever possible. The visuals do fit the story, in the sense that Songbird keeps the characters busy, zipping around the city when they’re able, without allowing them much characterization. The movie’s approach to world-building resembles something a ranting, discombobulated YouTuber would concoct.
That’s never more obvious than when the movie attempts to deal with the concept of virus diagnosis and immunity. Tests that are able to instantly detect the virus seem to be ubiquitous (and, per any information the movie offers, accurate), yet proof of immunity appears so difficult to come by that people are willing to pay hundreds of thousands of dollars to fake it, for the privilege of traveling… where, exactly, during this scary government lockdown? At one point, another character is described as self-evidently immune, because they haven’t gotten infected after close-quarters contact with someone who has COVID-23. But the sanitation troopers won’t back off until they scan the character’s bootlegged bracelet.
So where do real bracelets come from, if not from people who have been exposed to the virus and never catch it? And if the lack of virus after exposure (rather than the presence of the virus without any symptoms) indicates immunity, why is Nico supposed to be at risk of spreading the virus further? And if the virus can be instantly detected, how does it continue to spread at such devastating speed in the first place? Moreover: Is it fun or instructive to think about fake pandemic logistics when a real one continues to rage around the world?
Songbird gingerly implies that some of its inconsistencies may be in-world results of government overreach, but, Mason and co-writer Simon Boyes lack the courage of their stupid convictions. They never go into full-on conspiracy territory — truly, this is a movie that’s Just Asking Questions. Many who saw the movie’s trailer feared a grand political statement; instead, the movie offers an ideological muddle that can’t even stay consistently paranoid, fearmongering about “quarantine camps” while nodding in approval in favor of drones that can commit murder. Its dramatic confrontations amount to a series of minor stabbings, some sleight-of-hand, and dumb luck.
Late in the film, Peter Stormare, as the sinister head of sanitation, tells Nico that their immunity status makes them gods. It’s an interesting point, undermined by Songbird appearing to more or less believe it. Given Nico’s lack of any other personality traits, his immunity makes him a smug martyr, cursed to cut himself off from others (for, again, reasons that make little sense) while he clearly remains pleased with his mysteriously superior immune system. Maybe the filmmakers shouldn’t correct assumptions about Michael Bay’s authorship after all. Songbird isn’t as expensive, noisy, or misanthropic as a proper Bay film, but it’s every bit as cynical, never less than when it’s insisting that this is a hopeful pandemic story. Faced with a global calamity, here is a movie brave enough to say, “Well, it worked out for this jerk, so maybe things will be all right?”
Songbird will be available for premium digital rental on Dec. 11.