I Watched Michael Bay’s Pandemic Movie So You Don’t Have To
Dread it, run from it: the sh*t-mongering age of COVID-sploitation cinema has arrived in Songbird.
A Volcano slap-bang in the middle of Los Angeles; an empty London in 28 Days Later; The Perfect Storm‘s ungodly wave; the Statue of Liberty submerged in ice in The Day After Tomorrow – it’s hard to argue the sexiness of the apocalypse. Like moths to a flame, we gravitate around the bloody, crumbling, immense spectacle of disaster at the movies.
As a genre, it accounts for all spins of farce, whether it’s 2012 or Airplane! It can also bring universality to unthinkable tragedy, helping audiences understand The Impossible circumstances. Then, there’s Songbird, an amoral, Michael Bay-produced slab of pandemic fan-fiction.
The year is 2024. Coronavirus has mutated into COVID-23, with a 56% mortality rate seeing the death of more than 8.4 million Americans. ‘New strand, new year,’ one fake vlogger says.
Death can happen as quick as 48 hours, so going outside is strictly forbidden – but those who contract the virus are shipped off to the Q-Zone, a never-seen, ‘barbaric’, derelict concentration camp. I’m imagining Kyle Reese’s quarters in The Terminator’s flash-forwards.
The infected are manhandled by the Department of Sanitation (it’s actually a bureau in real life). Yes, the binmen of old are the heavies of now, now armed with guns, hazmat suits and a licence to kill. There’s also Emmett Harland (Peter Stormare on admirably game form), the gleefully poisonous chief of the operation. ‘Disobedience is spreading like a tornado,’ he warns.
A lucky few roam the City of Angels without checks or balances, shooting hoops in the empty streets and looting skyscrapers: the immune, adorned with snazzy bracelets. For whatever reason, they’re seen as ‘immune scum’ by the authorities.
One of whom is Nico (Riverdale’s KJ Apa), a valuable courier for Lester (Craig Robinson), whose company has a monopoly on the entirety of L.A. However, Nico’s girlfriend Sara (Sofia Carson), whom he’s never met in the flesh, stays at home with her mother. The driving force of the movie is their love story – not that you’ll remember it.
The script, written by Simon Boyes and director Adam Mason, leans on converging characters: online streamer May (Alexandra Daddario) befriends an isolated Afghan vet (Paul Walter Hauser), who also works for Lester. Nico delivers black market parcels to the Griffins (Demi Moore and Bradley Whitford), who are somewhat involved with Harland.
The tiny details broach watchable status. Whitford’s character is involved in an affair with May, and her creepy, gas mask lap dance is a perverse touch. The perpetual video-calling speaks to an existence we all live, either on the go or couples watching a movie together.
Other lines just infuriate. Another fake YouTuber says, ‘Remember the good old days of fake news, well real news is worse.’ A spike of zombies that exclusively feast on testicles could hit the news, and I’d still feel no affection for fake headlines. Though I suspect this film’s position is further to the right than left.
Mason doesn’t have a filmmaking voice. The low budget comes clear in the shaky-cam action and woeful CGI. The clearest influence is Bay, shot like every over-lit, calm-before-the-storm portion of the Transformers entries. To its only credit, that’s where most comparisons stop, bar the net-zero lack of class. At its worst, it’s just ugly. At best, like a polished TV ad for motorbikes or footwear.
Songbird has two major issues going against it: one, any work attempting to showcase a world affected by COVID-19 has to contend with Contagion, Steven Soderbergh’s prescient, densely-informed pandemic thriller. It’s unlikely we’ll ever have another movie so capable of instilling paranoia without feeling cheap.
Secondly, the disease it’s inspired by is in no way cinematic. A continuous cough doesn’t really trump eating brains, does it? At least The Happening’s airborne ‘virus’ was hilariously odd.
This film’s coronavirus is every bit as boring as our own, and the -23 upgrade is just laughably mundane. Stories like Deepwater Horizon and Only the Brave, wherever their movie magic liberties, feel justified because, harrowing as they may be, their plights are captivating. They pierce our imaginations.
The most immediate example of a great lockdown effort is Host, Rob Savage’s lean, mean, vicious Zoom horror that readily takes note of our new ways of life while feeling totally natural. Everyone keeps giving Songbird the title of the ‘first pandemic movie’, when there’s a far more deserving contender.
Trying to enrapture an audience with even more tedium, in a fictionalised version of a few years from now, with a borderline-irresponsible endorsement of authoritarian conspiracy theories and an all-star, mostly vacant cast, is completely pointless.
But it begs the question: what did Songbird wish to achieve? The last time I cried ‘Too soon’ was for Patriot’s Day, Mark Wahlberg’s Boston Marathon bombing movie. After watching it, it felt like a lesson learned, as it brought a fairly illuminating, affectionate, mature portrayal of the city’s spirit in adversity.
Oliver Stone’s World Trade Center felt extremely close to the bone, coming only five years after 9/11. For me, its reverence for the attack was in its DNA.
Ultimately, this has no ethics. It’s designed to capitalise on COVID hysteria for money, pure and simple. There’s no greater cause in play, no lesson – should we be good citizens, or rage against the machine? – or actual sentiment that couldn’t be an ecommerce mission statement. Near the end, Nico says with unbearable earnestness, ‘I realise now we weren’t just delivering packages…. we were delivering hope.’
A true waste of time. You’ll find more meaning in a game of Plague, Inc.
If you have a story you want to tell, send it to UNILAD via [email protected]
Most Read StoriesMost Read