Adam Mason’s schlocky and opportunistic “Songbird” is billed as the first Hollywood feature to be made during quarantine, and this impressively scaled pandemic-themed riff on “The Purge” couldn’t be prouder of itself for that accomplishment. The project announces its own topicality before the studio company logos have even played out during the opening credits, as snippets of news audio bark at us about the death toll of COVID-23 (a mutated coronavirus that’s evolved to attack brain tissue and kill people within 48 hours of infection), and not a single minute of the slapdash movie that follows allows you to forget that it was conceived, pitched, written, shot, edited, and released since lockdown started in March.
That ultra-accelerated schedule is both a feature and a bug: There’s a raw, B-movie thrill to the experience of watching a (relatively) lavish, Michael Bay-produced thriller that was unambiguously made during and about “these uncertain times,” and the worm-brained shittiness of the story’s dystopian approach to public health has a perverse way of amplifying that grindhouse appeal. There are recognizable actors here, and some of them even share locations, move through locked-off streets, and engage in boringly generic shootouts that are bad for reasons that have nothing to do with social distancing. With the glorious exception of “Borat Subsequent Moviefilm,” no other moviefilm has worked harder to make lemonade out of this lemon year, and while “Songbird” sure feels like some hot and bothered Republican fear-mongering about the future that Dr. Fauci wants, the production’s adherence to safety protocols is borne out by its run-and-gun aesthetic. (The press notes contend that nobody got sick, though it’s hard to accept such a claim at face value given how this virus spreads.)
On the other hand, 200,000 preventable American deaths (and counting!) don’t change the fact that trash is still trash — if this year has taught us anything, it’s that not even an N95 mask can totally protect you from inhaling the fatal stink of someone else’s lowered standards. For all of its gimmicky appeal, “Songbird” is bad enough that your entire neighborhood will be able to smell it streaming onto your TV, and it gets worse faster than your nose can adjust to the stench.
The story takes place in a near-future where 110 million people have died from COVID-23, which is both horrifying to imagine, and also inexplicably great considering that the virus seems to kill just about everyone who isn’t immune to it. The city of L.A. has been living — or not living — under various states of quarantine for 213 consecutive weeks, with the infected targeted by a mandatory government phone app and herded into ominous Q-Zones from which there is no escape. In other words, COVID-23 is a death sentence however you slice it. And yet, somehow, the virus continues to spread (anyone who expects that “somehow” to be addressed needs to considerably lower their expectations for the kind of thought that went into “Songbird”). The only people who seem to leave their homes are the imaginatively named “Immunies,” who are identified by bio-coded yellow bracelets and all seem to work as couriers or corpse-removers.
Nico falls into the former category. Played by “Riverdale” actor and human-shaped ab transportation device KJ Apa (whose previous movie had the misfortune of being released in theaters right at the start of lockdown), our hero is out there on the streets day in and day out, living his best life as he LARPs “Death Stranding” and delivers illegal packages into ultraviolet mailboxes for a supplier named Lester (Craig Robinson), who seems to operate a one-man Amazon out of his warehouse. His slogan: “Rich people need their shit!” Ain’t that the truth. Here, those rich people are represented by William and Piper Griffin (Bradley Whitford and Demi Moore respectively, the former really doubling down on his post-“Get Out” persona as white privilege incarnate), a married power couple who must have been on the brink of divorce right when the pandemic froze everyone in place. She spends her time caring for their immunocompromised daughter and running a black market immunity bracelet ring, while he ventures out into the world for even less benevolent reasons.
One of those reasons is a singer named May (Alexandra Daddario), who came out West for a record deal and got stuck there when the virus hit. Now she spends her time performing acoustic cover songs over Instagram Live, which are seemingly watched by everyone outside of the Q-Zone. There must be less competition in the streaming space now that so many people in Los Angeles are dead, though it’s unclear if that was enough to save HBO Max — just as it’s unclear how May and other survivors like her get food and water if they’re virtually forbidden from leaving the house. There’s only one Nico! May’s biggest fan Michael Dozer (a warm Paul Walter Hauser) also works for Lester, but the wheelchair-bound war vet completes all of his deliveries with the help of a drone he calls Max. You do not want to mess with Max.
If that sounds like a lot of characters for an 82-minute movie that spends most of its time focusing on the gestapo-like Department of Sanitation — naturally led by a power-mad Peter Stormare — that’s because it is, and we haven’t even gotten to the pretty girl whose infected abuelita kinda sorta knots all of these threads together. Her name is Sara (a winsome Sofia Carson), and she and Nico have been in love through computer screens and from opposite sides of her front door ever since he directed a package to her apartment by mistake. They’ve never even touched, but when Sara’s granny falls ill and the Sanitation folks threaten to come for she and Sara both, Nico makes a desperate bid to steal his girlfriend out of the city.
It would be an understatement to say that Mason’s threadbare script (co-written with Simon Boyes) fails to balance a “Magnolia”-esque mosaic against the urgency demanded by the young lovers on the lam plot at its core — May’s wisp of a story, for example, has nothing to do with Nico and Sara — but the truth of the matter is that none of the characters in “Songbird” are even remotely as important as the world they inhabit. On their own, these people range from pleasant and dull to unpleasant and dull, but this movie is attuned to the tenuous bonds that stretch between them (and us) in a way that suggests it would have been wise to emphasize that instead of the empty suspense of Nico and Sara’ escape.
One dopey special effects shot of Max flying over the lovebirds resonates stronger with The Way We Live Now and stay connected to each other than any of the film’s tepid posturing about hope amidst isolation. Of course, the film’s mere existence was always going to be the most impressive thing about it, a fact made all the more obvious because of how well Mason and his team have leveraged the post-apocalyptic emptiness of pandemic-era L.A. into a convincing vision of life after the fall. A little CGI overgrowth on the 405 and a few barren wide shots of the downtown area are really all it takes to get the job done — our imaginations are more than capable of filling in the blanks from there.
But this is a film that only exists to flaunt the fact that it can, and to prove that a stupid pandemic is no match for the cinematic muscle of Michael Bay. A writer’s strike didn’t stop him from slathering an alien robot’s balls all over the Pyramids, so there’s no way a little coronavirus was ever going to prevent him from overseeing a movie with a gratuitous striptease sequence that completely misinterprets the meaning of contact tracing. So what if people are supposed to stay home and production facilities across the world have shut down? Guns have to fire! Men have to yell! Rich people need their shit. At least a handful of actors and craftspeople got a paying gig out of it.
Of course, it makes all too much sense that the first mainstream American movie shot during and inspired by COVID-19 would insist government-imposed quarantines are worse than any disease and that super-spreaders are hot and cool and ride motorcycles. After all, it’s hard to make a high-octane action spectacle about people practicing personal responsibility despite an unforgivable lack of federal support. But films have a funny way of revealing the truth about the world in which they were made, even when they’re lying through their teeth. And “Songbird,” to its credit, is definitely one of them.
STXfilms will release “Songbird” as a VOD rental on Friday, December 11.