Songbird was the first movie filmed during the COVID-19 pandemic. The Michael Bay-produced project went into production in July while Los Angeles was on lockdown, which no doubt made it easier to shoot in the city’s usually bustling streets. The movie also takes the pandemic as its inspiration. It imagines a scenario only two years in the future where the virus has mutated, becoming even more deadly and now going by the name COVID-23. Most people are confined to their homes, with only those who are immune to the virus allowed to traverse the city. Meanwhile, businesses have dwindled to only the most essential services and the Department of Sanitation has been re-purposed with the task of rounding up anyone who’s tested positive for the virus and bringing them, along with anyone they live with, to quarantine zones, areas with brutal conditions that no one seems to return from.
Riverdale star K.J. Apa plays Nico, one of the lucky individuals with immunity. Because of his status, he’s able to work as a bicycle courier, delivering packages across the city (his boss is played by Craig Robinson). Nico has the world at his disposal, taking whatever he wants wherever he goes. But what he really wants is to spend time with his girlfriend, Sara (Sofia Carson), who is confined to her apartment with her grandmother. Although the couple have never met in person, Nico is deeply devoted to Sara, so when her grandmother gets sick with the virus making their capture by the Department of Sanitation imminent, Nico races through the city desperately trying to procure immunity passes to save them from the quarantine zone.
The movie also weaves in several side plots, including one involving a wealthy family led by a couple played by Demi Moore and Bradley Whitford who are in the business of acquiring immunity passes for anyone who can afford them. If that weren’t enough, Whitford’s character is a shady former record executive who is having an affair with a singer (Alexandra Daddario) who now makes money by singing on the internet where she meets and befriends a drone-flying war veteran (Paul Walter Hauser). Meanwhile, Peter Stormare, as the villainous head of the sanitation department, shows up periodically to menace Sara and Nico.
It’s a lot to pack into just under 90 minutes, and as you might expect, the sprawl means the plotlines that don’t relate directly to Sara and Nico’s story feel tangential. The inclusion of these B and C plots make the film seem more like an elongated TV episode than a coherent movie, except in this case, viewers are likely to care even less given they don’t have multiple episodes of experience with these characters.
Perhaps the biggest question though about Songbird is, since the film is about a pandemic and was also filmed and is being released during a pandemic, does it add anything to the conversation? I don’t believe it does, at least not in a helpful way. Obviously the movie is meant to be entertaining but it envisions a worst-case scenario of our current predicament that isn’t enjoyable to watch. Moreover, the film’s vision of quarantine camps and authorities run amuck in the name of protecting the populace comes across as schlocky fodder for those who think wearing a mask impinges on their civil liberties.
Besides, a pandemic is an odd event to wrap a love story around. I suppose for singles who’ve been relegated to Zoom dates for months, Sara and Nico’s story might provide a ray of hope for romance while social distancing. Yet, because the pair are never physically together until the film’s climax, their relationship doesn’t have all that much heat. Plus, throughout their interactions, it’s hard not to wonder if they could really make it work given they’ve only presented the best sides of themselves to one another over video chat.
Ultimately, Songbird doesn’t provide any real insight into our current moment and doesn’t work as escapist entertainment either. Despite the surprisingly starry cast, it feels more like a formulaic Michael Bay film — with its sudden bursts of action and violence and shallow romance — that uses the pandemic as an attention-grabbing jumping-off point. Yet while the film’s pandemic backdrop will get people’s attention, the movie itself is unlikely to keep it.