'Songbird': Film Review

Why not just watch the news instead?

K.J. Apa, Sofia Carson, Demi Moore and Bradley Whitford appear in this Michael Bay-produced thriller about several people trying to survive during a deadly pandemic.

The country is currently in the grip of a deadly pandemic. The death rate is higher than ever, with fatalities racing toward the 300,000 mark. Millions of people are in desperate financial straits, the government response has been chaotic and people are violently rebelling against the very health measures designed to keep them alive. So what you really want to do to distract yourself from this horrible state of affairs is pluck down $20 at home to watch a new cinematic thriller about a country in the grip of a deadly pandemic, right? Right?

Apparently, the creators of Songbird think so. The production notes for the film produced by disaster movie maestro Michael Bay mention that the creative team employed a technique they dub "opportunistic filmmaking." The term refers to the use of non-traditional photographic formats such as iPhones, GoPro and surveillance cameras. But it could also easily describe this ponderous effort, which would be more accurately described as "exploitative filmmaking."

Using the fact that it was the first film to shoot in Los Angeles during the pandemic as a dubious selling point, the film directed by Adam Mason (Into the Dark) is set in 2024, when the virus has mutated into an even more deadly form that has killed millions of people. The country is in total lockdown, with Los Angeles' mayor having declared martial law. People who are discovered to be infected are snatched from their homes by hazmat suit-wearing Sanitation Department officers and thrown into quarantine camps known as "Q-Zones." (Yes, that's just what we need right now. An inspirational film for anti-lockdown protesters.)

This being a Hollywood production, there has to be a feel-good element. It comes in the form of the star-crossed love story between intrepid courier Nico (K.J. Apa, Riverdale), who is immune to the virus but also a supercarrier, and Sara (Sofia Carson, Descendants), a young woman who lives with her grandmother. Despite the two would-be lovers' intense emotional connection, physical contact, needless to say, is impossible.

Other characters figuring in the proceedings are William and Piper Griffith (Bradley Whitford, Demi Moore), a wealthy couple, stuck together, whose marriage is on the rocks; May (Alexandra Daddario), an aspiring singer who performs online, with whom William is having a kinky pandemic affair; Michael (Paul Walter Hauser, Richard Jewell, bringing some enjoyable quirkiness), May's biggest fan, a disabled veteran and a whiz at drones; and Lester (Craig Robinson), Nico's boss, who runs a delivery business servicing wealthy clients.

When Sara's grandmother falls victim to the virus, which can be detected almost immediately by a cell phone scanning app (it would be nice if that were part of the film's merchandising), the nasty Dept. of Sanitation head, played in full moustache-twirling mode by Peter Stormare, seizes her and Sara — "Bag and tag the hag!" he instructs his goons — to take to one of the dreaded Q-Zones. That is, unless Nico can prevent it by illicitly snaring one of the invaluable black market bracelets signaling immunity.

It would be churlish to criticize the film's low-level production values, since, well, it was filmed during a pandemic. But that doesn't prevent one from pointing out the simplistic nature of the script by director Mason and Simon Boyes, which feels as perfunctory as the obviously rushed production schedule must have necessitated. Despite the high-stakes drama, there's nary a compelling moment throughout, and some of the characterizations, especially Stormare's villainous Sanitation Department honcho, are so absurdly one-note that it's hard not to think that the film is meant as parody. The impressive ensemble deliver their performances with admirable commitment, but you mainly find yourselves distracted by the hope that proper safety protocols were in place.

Ultimately, the filmmakers' main achievement in producing and releasing Songbird is that they managed to do it at all. Whether or not it was actually worth doing, or if the film will be of any interest after this protracted national nightmare is over, is another question.

Available on PVOD
Production companies: STX Films, Invisible Narratives, Platinum Dunes, Catchlight Studios
Distributor: STX Films
Cast: K.J. Apa, Sofia Carson, Demi Moore, Craig Robinson, Bradley Whitford, Peter Stormare, Alexandra Daddario, Paul Walter Hauser
Director: Adam Mason
Screenwriters: Adam Mason, Simon Boyes
Producers: Michael Bay, Adam Goodman, Andrew Sugerman, Eben Davidson, Jeanette Volturno, Jason Clark, Marcei Brown
Executive producers: Simon Boyes, Samuel J. Brown, Adam Fogelson, Michael Kase, Adam Mason, Robert Simonds
Director of photography: Jacques Jouffret
Production designer: Jennifer Spence
Editor: Geoffrey O'Brien
Composer: Lorna Balfe
Costume designer: Lisa Norcia
Casting: Nancy Nayor

PG-13, 90 min.