The Pitch: It should be noted, before sharing the plot of Songbird, that Pfizer, Moderna, and a growing number of other medical companies are rolling out vaccines for the novel coronavirus while public health experts suggest these vaccines may be highly effective. Yes, there seems to be an end in sight. Maybe “normalcy” can resume by next summer. Maybe. But Songbird will have none of that today.
THE YEAR IS 2024.
The American public is in a gestapo-like state of permanent lockdown until further notice to try and mitigate the evolving damage of COVID-23. The rich pay couriers for illegal “immunity” bracelets that offer access across heavily-armed checkpoints. The poor are roamers, apartment dwellers, and YouTubers trying to make a buck while minding their time inside. Songbird focuses in on a tense, obnoxiously plotted young lovers’ story between paralegal-turned-courier Nico (K.J. Apa) and his crush Sara (Sofia Carson). The two must beat the odds, facing off against a gun-toting Department of Sanitation and a population quickly decaying into madness.
In short, here’s a story about generally self-centered people making bad excuses in a movie that was developed at a time when we understood even less about COVID-19, a film that utilizes sweeping generalizations and fear tactics to make a dirty buck off your worries and fears.
Not Very COVID-cing, Now Is It? Songbird couldn’t have come along at a worse time. We’re struggling to clamp down, and here comes a film that errs on the side of stoking already troublesome flames. This one goes out to all the people that already feel like their civil liberties are being squashed by difficult-but-beneficial-and-still-temporary lockdowns. Opening credit radio excerpts and Alex Jones-esque podcasts question the motivations of lockdown. Cool. This isn’t about huddling for the greater good. There are no tales of essential workers or scientists hard at work here. It’s about a guy with abs and stubble that’s, like, super bummed out because he can’t kiss his crush or ride his hog enough anymore.
Given the film’s audacious-enough pitch to inject a stressful moment atop a bland thriller, it’s in that spirit that we’ll just break the argument down into 19 problems with, annoyances over, and/or criticisms of Songbird:
01. Dramatically, it’s a poor-man’s disaster film.
Say what you will about Irwin Allen flicks of the ‘70s; at least they trotted out some A-listers and special effects that could sometimes reach the peaks of that era. Get a bunch of bright-eyed beauties and prominent names together in a harrowing high-concept horror like shoddy construction or a swarm of bees. Here, the horror is very real and will likely come across as insensitive. And the stars range from YA (Apa, Carson) to TV (Bradley Whitford, Craig Robinson) to WTF (Demi Moore and Paul Walter Hauser, a.k.a. GI Jane and Richard Jewell, together at last). Rich folk, poor folk, handsome folk.
02. Cheap thrills.
Adam Mason, a fairly storied director of music videos and low-budget thrillers, directs in a too-familiar style. Attention-deficit editing, jittery imagery, and an impatient need to rush through stories and dramatic beats litter his work here. Some may call that a mood. Others may find the bone lacking in meat.
03. Bad science.
Perhaps we can chalk this up to the story being written in spring and filmed in late summer, but the science is annoying if not downright stupid. Granted, that’s the risk you take in making a movie about a moving target of a disease with little research at hand. Wild gesticulations are made, and the science already seems … off. Nico drops parcels in UV cleaning boxes, but research already suggests it’s not necessarily surfaces we should worry about. There’s talk of three-week quarantines, when the CDC just started talking about 10-day quarantines. And people freak out about free daily mobile app screenings that detect the disease, which…
04. Songbird is weird about tech and innovation.
There’s a plot point about a daily 9 A.M. screening for illness on everyone’s smartphones. Cool, right? Seemingly free and socialized testing. Nope! It’s invasive and oppressive and a threat in Songbird. So much for all the good-faith “COVID-19 doesn’t have to be a death sentence” talk of recent months. Oh, and there are drones. Killer drones. Dystopia, dude.
05. The film’s cynical attitude in general.
Again, Songbird’s angle seems to be that COVID-19 is going to send us into a new Stone Age and it’s just not fair and we should break free. Everyone’s struggling. No one is depicted helping to fight the disease. Because when the masses are in peril, nothing says “we see you” like a film about self-absorbed people.
06. The script needs medicine.
A romantic thriller needs more than hacky clichés ladled atop disaster film claptrap. Whitford and Moore are a meanly married couple, bickering with forgettable lines. The hunk saves the day against insurmountable odds. The romance is built on platitudes like “Hey, remember movie theaters, and other things?” Painful stuff. One has to wonder: Was this just waiting in a drawer with swine flu or something written in, waiting to tag itself to a current event?
07. Bradley Whitford’s doing his thang again.
Maybe he knows he’s great at playing an ass. But he’s been better, and it’s okay if he plays a normal or even nice guy in the near future again.
08. Demi Moore’s kinda flat.
Sometimes it’s fun to see ‘90s faces come out of the woodwork. Other times, it’s frustrating when those faces are given little to do, as she is here. In fairness, this is less a Demi problem and more a script/plot problem.
09. K.J. Apa is not the lead you were looking for.
Was Liam Hemsworth not available?
10. And the good actors? They’re wasted.
Craig Robinson is a really funny guy. Not here, though. Paul Walter Hauser is a talented new name; we saw his chops in Da 5 Bloods and Richard Jewell. Here he’s a piteous vet with a killer streak. And young Sara Carson seems like a young talent deserving of better things. Everyone’s wasted.
11. A degree from the Michael Bay School of Photography.
Yes, this is a production from Michael Bay’s Platinum Dunes label, and you probably have a good idea about the look. GoPro chic, cameras swinging into weird places, dim lighting, and lights atop guns in dark places. The aesthetic is all about copious amounts of shooting with no care for flow or form or impact. Let the editors figure it out.
12. Sound decisions that prove unsound.
Lorne Balfe composes the score. Cool guy! A Hans Zimmer protégé. But what he does here is akin to police procedural drones and tension sounds and other dun-dun-dunnnn. That’s not scoring, it’s sound patches to evoke a response, cheaply.
13. Songbird makes a tense situation worse.
Have we mentioned that now might not be the time to release a panicky thriller about COVID? The film’s M.O. is to take a bad situation and make a lOvE sONg for all the Free Birds out there. I can hear Mark Wahlberg screaming about being a caged peacock somewhere.
14. Lots of guns.
There’s a startling amount of armed guards with big guns and masks. Shootouts, too, because why talk things out when you can end a scene with a shootout?
15. This is a very violent PG-13.
A man is shot to a bloody death by a drone. Like, blood-on-the-car-window splatter. Another man is brutally stabbed in the neck, and the stabber drops the weapon on the floor with a lot of blood left to stain a carpet. How is this PG-13?
16. It’s $19.99.
It’s going to cost 20 bucks to watch this, when it’s $15 for thousands of movies on HBO Max, or $8 for the same amount on Disney+?
17. More to the point? This is a commercially gross project.
Let’s drop the pretenses of art and talk turkey. One has the sinking feeling that early on, someone saw that COVID-19 – as a concept – has high familiarity and engagement rates online. Gross to think, right? Now drop the real disease and ask if this movie would’ve been greenlit. A so-so movie becomes an unseemly one by tethering to fraught realities. Songbird borders on exploitation filmmaking.
18. Artistically, this is a selfish story.
Last May, Spike Lee made a three-minute short about COVID-19 with limited supplies as a testament to New York City’s resolve against the pandemic. It’s equally heartbreaking and invigorating, and shows what an artist can do with a careful and compassionate eye. Lee takes tragedy and finds majesty. It’s a quick note on how to handle this situation with care, from a COVID perspective.
Adam Mason’s Songbird is about boring people getting mad that they’re stuck inside, and the government is oppressing them, and they’ll soon fly free or whatever.
19. Verdict: Not worth the shot, or your $20.
Where’s It Playing? It’s currently available for Premium Video On-Demand.