It was always a matter of when, not if, Hollywood would make a movie—or several, with varying degrees of quality—about the ongoing pandemic. Films mined from a tragic event in history aren’t necessarily a bad thing (see: United 93), but if I had to choose a filmmaker to treat a catastrophic situation that’s already claimed over 1.5 million lives across the world with consideration and decency, Michael Bay wouldn’t exactly be near the top of the list.
Bay’s standing in Hollywood seems like the universe’s answer to the question, “What if you gave a 12-year-old kid who shouts obscenities while playing Call of Duty a hefty production budget and enough explosives to wipe a small town off the face of the Earth?” If “loud” is the first thing that comes to mind when imagining a Michael Bay production, “tasteless” usually isn’t too far behind. And while the director didn’t get behind the camera for Songbird, the Bay-produced, COVID-inspired thriller is imprinted with his tone-deaf sensibilities.
As the production notes for Songbird—directed by Adam Mason, who cowrote the script with Simon Boyes—proudly boast, the film was the first to begin shooting in Los Angeles this summer after the rapid spread of COVID-19 shut down productions in the spring. Judging from the show notes, the movie’s brain trust would prefer to frame the quick turnaround to release Songbird on demand this month as “opportunistic filmmaking”; it would be more sincere to describe the entire endeavor as exploitative. (And, spoiler alert, uninspired filmmaking at that.)
As far as the plot goes, strap yourselves in. The year is 2024, and Los Angeles is now in its 214th straight week of lockdown. That’s because the coronavirus has continued to mutate and become more deadly; the latest strain, COVID-23, has a mortality rate above 50 percent. Anybody who tests positive for the virus is forcibly removed from their homes to live in “Q-Zones,” which have notoriously brutal conditions—assuming one is lucky enough to survive the sickness. A very small percentage of people are immune; they’re dismissively called “munies” and are generally treated with disdain because everyone else is jealous that they can safely leave their home.
Our protagonist is Nico (played by Riverdale’s KJ Apa), an immune courier who delivers packages to mostly wealthy clientele. Nico hopes to one day see his girlfriend Sara (Sofia Carson), whom he “met” during the lockdown after accidentally delivering something to her address, as all love stories start. “It’s Romeo and Juliet, but they’re separated by her front door and by the virus,” Mason helpfully told Entertainment Weekly. Songbird jumps around to follow other characters and B plots, like a wealthy couple (Demi Moore and Bradley Whitford) who sell black market “immunity bracelets,” a wheelchair-using veteran (Paul Walter Hauser) who surveys the city with a drone, and a singer (Alexandra Daddario) who moved to L.A. to become a star only for COVID to trap her in a motel room.
All these characters’ lives intersect, though not necessarily in the same physical space (see: COVID). Sara’s live-in grandma contracts the virus, and Nico makes a desperate bid to get his girlfriend a black market immunity bracelet so she isn’t tossed into one of the city’s Q-Zones. That means, mind-numbing optics of rushing a COVID-related movie to the public while many are still suffering from the pandemic’s effects aside, Songbird is a love story about a dude looking to flout a mandatory lockdown for a virus with an unconscionable mortality rate so that he can hang out with his girlfriend. I don’t care if it’s Hot Archie we’re talking about, that’s not cool, man!
Granted, there’s probably no way to make a COVID-related thriller all that compelling if characters are being responsible and adhering to a government-mandated lockdown for the wellbeing of others. Songbird does (minor spoiler alert) try to make Nico’s decision less ill-conceived by introducing the twist that Sara was also immune to the virus without realizing it, but all that does is create a Russian nesting doll of world-building questions, like why she never knew about her immunity, that the film isn’t equipped to answer. (Also, there’s still the tacit endorsement of ignoring a pretty damn important quarantine just because you want to see someone.)
To give Songbird some credit, it totally tracks that 1-percenters would still live comfortable lives in the midst of societal collapse. While the rest of the populace fears for their safety, the wealthy elite can basically get Amazon packages delivered to their doorstep from immune couriers without a hassle. (Naturally, some of these obscenely wealthy people don’t even bother to tip.) It’s never explained, though, how a singer trapped in a motel room or a middle class family in an apartment complex receive essential items without ever leaving their homes—given that the government apparently has orders to shoot anyone outside on sight, it’s not like anyone can hop over to a Trader Joe’s for some milk.
If there is anything interesting to take from Songbird—aside from the visceral horror of watching actors make out while filming in the middle of a pandemic—it’s that the movie already feels like a bizarre time capsule. While the United States just had the highest single-day death toll since the pandemic started, effective COVID-19 vaccines are slowly but surely being distributed. Songbird’s dystopian, exaggerated vision of a COVID lockdown without end isn’t just insensitive: It already feels outdated. (To say nothing of so many entitled citizens who never even bothered to cut out dangerous social activities or wear masks for the betterment of others in the first place.)
Songbird wants to be a movie about hope in the face of a hopeless situation—with human connection from afar and reuniting with loved ones representing the light at the end of the tunnel. But this movie—by virtue of its existence—says a lot more about the people who made it than it does about the world we live in. Songbird might claim to be about COVID, but the greediness and exploitativeness of such a film coming out in 2020 is symptomatic of a larger disease.