Adam Mason’s near-future COVID tale is an unnecessary, crass idea with a rushed script and cheap production values.
Back in mid-March, Simon Boyes called Adam Mason about an idea for a pandemic thriller. The two writing partners quickly sketched out a plot outline, it began to pick up traction, and it was only a matter of days before Michael Bay came on to the project as a producer. The name would be Songbird. It’d also begin filming that July with Mason directing and come out in December, less than nine months after its inception. All of this said, it’s hard to dissect what’s worse: the fact that people exploited a global tragedy so quickly, or the final result.
The concept obviously isn’t in good taste. Perhaps it’d be possible in another world to overlook that if Songbird were any good, but it isn’t. It feels like a network TV pilot from 2005 that never got picked up and, at just 81 minutes excluding credits, ends before it begins. One could see that as being mercifully short. In this case, the film is so rushed and flabby that nothing makes an impact, rendering it little more than a sensationalized cash grab. COVID-19? Oh, no. Now it’s 2024, and COVID-23 has claimed well over 110 million lives. Thrilling!
Boyes & Mason’s script follows a grapevine of people in Los Angeles, but not just any Los Angeles. This L.A. looks like a nuclear bomb hit certain parts, the roads abandoned and the Santa Monica Pier in ruins for whatever reason. Martial law keeps people in their homes at all times (no homeless people exist in Songbird’s universe). Among the rubble is Nico (KJ Apa), a courier and one of the 0.1 percent immune to the virus who wears a government-administered bracelet to let others know he’s safe. The movie says soon after that even immune people can infect others by attracting particles to their person, but, uh, never mind that. Elsewhere, the government moves the sick into—wait for it—quarantine camps.
Nico is in a relationship with Sara (Sofia Carson), with whom he’s never been in physical contact. Sara lives with her grandmother Lita (Elpidia Carrillo), who’s especially prone. As things get worse, Nico is determined to get Sara to safety, but because that’s not enough to fill even 81 minutes, Boyes & Mason pack the movie with a bunch of other filler. William (Bradley Whitford) and Piper (Demi Moore) are a married couple selling counterfeit immunity bracelets. William is having an affair with May (Alexandra Daddario), a singer, who’s, in turn, forging an online friendship with disabled war veteran Dozer (Paul Walter Hauser).
The main romance doesn’t really matter, but the ensemble conflicts are especially moot. Songbird instead goes all in on post-apocalyptic clichés without demonstrating literacy of any of them. The world building is bland, the characters completely hollow. Traits, such as Dozer’s veteran status or the marital rift between William and Piper, are more tacked-on than intrinsic, and they never tie into the scenario at hand. It all feels circumstantial, which makes the movie as a whole play like some sort of quasi-scare tactic without any perspective of its own.
Inherently, Mason’s film is a conundrum. Does it want to pull from reality at this moment or does it want to create an escape? Does it want to be quick and schlocky or does it want to actually get a reaction? When all is said and done, does it matter? Songbird doesn’t give any of its cast enough time to make an impression and others, such as Craig Robinson as Nico’s boss, fall even more by the wayside.
Perhaps it’d be possible in another world to overlook [the concept] if Songbird was any good, but it isn’t. It feels like a network TV pilot from 2005 that never got picked up.
Rather than make an impression on those fronts, the picture puts its production values front and center. And they aren’t good either: Jacques Jouffret’s cinematography is drained out, and it’s shaky enough to make it look like the camera operator was scratching their leg while shooting. Geoffrey O’Brien’s editing is often choppy enough to prevent a real sense of space from forming, and Mason’s direction is as bland as it gets. Even the production design looks haphazard. (Sara has a security monitor in her apartment to speak to visitors in the hallway, and it’s clearly just an iPad glued to the wall.)
Then again, should any of this be surprising? Songbird feels like an excuse to make a buck, and it’s all but impossible to shake that feeling. Who knows; maybe the filmmakers had nothing but the best of intentions. Just maybe they really wanted to create an outlet for those suffering. Alas, they didn’t.
Songbird lands on VOD this Friday, December 11.