HomeMovies'Songbird' Review: A Half-Baked COVID Thriller

‘Songbird’ Review: A Half-Baked COVID Thriller

KJ Apa stars in SONGBIRD
Photo Courtesy of STXFilms

When the trailer for Songbird appeared in late October, the Michael Bay-produced film immediately sparked online buzz—very little of it positive. Besides the usual Twitter rants, it inspired whole articles about how “crass and traumatizing” making a dramatization of the COVID-19 pandemic was in an America still unable to control its spread. However, nine months into various levels of lockdown and on the cusp of a devastating winter-long surge, Songbird doesn’t so much seem tasteless or dangerous in its somewhat anti-lockdown sensibilities as it does a touch naive about how plausible its dystopian future seems given everything we’ve experienced.

Set in Los Angeles in 2024, the original virus has now mutated to a new strain, COVID-23. As the audio of an opening news report informs us, the virus now has a 56% mortality rate so all citizens are now forbidden from leaving their homes unless they’re immune. One such “mune-y” is Nico (Riverdale’s KJ Apa), a former paralegal who now bikes around the city delivering mysterious packages to homebound residents for his somewhat nefarious boss, Lester (Craig Robinson). His favorite recipient is his non-immune girlfriend Sara (Sofia Carson of Disney’s The Descendants), who he met after lockdown. Their plans to take a COVID-safe trip so they can touch each other for the first time are thwarted when the grandmother Sara lives with becomes ill and Nico must race to save Sara before the government places her in one of the deadly Q-Zones.

Though the script that director Adam Mason co-wrote with Simon Boyes is a nightmare extrapolation of our current lives, one of the barriers to buying into the film’s world are the natural questions that arise about its plausibility. As we quickly learn, everyone must take a temperature check every morning using their smart phones and seemingly every home is equipped with a device that uses UV light to disinfect anything being delivered. Those who fail their daily check are violently whisked away by the local Department of Sanitation and anyone wandering outside without a canary yellow immunity band risks being shot on sight.

Though all of these measures seem plausible if not always reasonable, given what we’ve seen in the real world, it’s frankly hard to believe there would be enough government organization even on a local level to enforce all of these rules — let alone that there might not be a violent resistance to following these orders even four years in. Still, it would be easy to suspend our disbelief if the film were a bit clearer about just how contagious COVID-23 is. Though an online personality explains early on that simply being out in the world leaves “mune-y’s” covered in COVID, the non-immune characters all seem fairly flippant about opening a window or making sure no outside air can seep into their homes. When two non-immune characters share an impromptu tryst, neither of them seems to spare much thought about disinfecting before they they touch.

That said, as light as Songbird is on the logistics of its disease, there’s so much plot packed into its barely over 80-minute runtime that you could almost ignore it. Though Nico and Sara are the film’s center, the screen time is almost evenly split amongst them and the other interconnected characters. In addition to Lester, there’s his colleague/cohort Dozer (Paul Walter Hauser) a wheelchair-bound veteran of the war in Afghanistan who is also obsessed with May (Alexandra Daddario), a musician who livestreams performances from her home. She also happens to be having an affair with William Griffin (Bradley Whitford), a wealthy man who sells contraband immunity bands at a premium with his wife, Piper (Demi Moore) — all of which are picked up by Nico.

While the characters are loosely connected, they also each have their own arcs and it can feel like the film is asking the viewer to invest in too many storylines at once. On one hand, that gives the film a bit of a hero problem. We’re supposed to root for Nico and Sara, but it seems we’re also supposed to root for Piper despite some villainous choices simply because everything she does is to protect her immunodeficient daughter. On the other, packing so many stories into so little time leaves them all feeling thin to the point of cliché. Though Hauser and particularly Daddario are good in their roles, their damaged soldier trying to save the hooker with a heart of gold arc is so trite that not even one shocking turn late in the film can save it.

Though the clear lack of stakes and episodic storytelling are frustrating enough on their own, it’s the way they compound that leads to Songbird’s ultimate failure. This review won’t spoil any of the film’s ending beats, but every single denouement feels too convenient. Because every story is couched in a trope we’ve seen before, nothing that happens is really a surprise and because everything is so tidy, the script ultimately makes it feel as if the COVID-23 set up was never really as dangerous as the characters made it seem in the first place. Because we don’t have a clear sense of how this mutated version of the virus spreads or what measures the characters should or shouldn’t take to avoid getting it, the viewer ends up spending just as much time trying to figure out the logistics of the final plot moments as trying to experience the emotions they’re meant to elicit.

Considering the circumstances under which Songbird was conceived and made, it could be worse. The performances are solid despite the characters’ thinness and the narratives Mason and Boyes present are engrossing even if they are cliché. Yet even in its best moments, Songbird feels like a first draft, made too much in a vacuum of production restrictions and a need to finish it quickly for anyone involved to notice that it’s a little weightless. The trailer may have sparked some outrage when it premiered, but the finished product is too empty to get angry over.

Songbird is now available on VOD.

Marisa Carpico
Marisa Carpico
By day, Marisa Carpico stresses over America’s election system. By night, she becomes a pop culture obsessive. Whether it’s movies, TV or music, she watches and listens to it all so you don’t have to.

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