KJ Apa as Nico
Sofia Carson as Sara
Craig Robinson as Lester
Peter Stormare as Emmett Harland
Alexandra Daddario as May
Demi Moore as Piper Griffin
Paul Walter Hauser as Michael Dozer
Bradley Whitford as William Griffin
Jenna Ortega as Izzy
Ethan Josh Lee as Giffords
Lia McHugh as Emma Griffin
Michole Briana White as Alice
Co-Written & Directed by Adam Mason; Co-Written by Simon Boyes
When the announcement first came that Michael Bay would produce a pandemic thriller while we are in the midst of one and that it would be filmed entirely during this time, I tried to keep an open mind. On one hand, even if he’s not writing or directing it, Bay could easily glorify or exploit this issue, on the other, this is on opportune moment for something of value to offer some emotionally-charged thrills for a timely subject, as we’ve seen of late with films and shows exploring issues of systemic racism and police brutality. Unlike a majority of them, however, not only does Songbird drop the ball in handling its central gimmick, but it fails to even elicit some mildly enjoyable or pulse-pounding sequences, instead evoking feelings of disgust, anger and frustration throughout.
Set in Los Angeles, four years in the future, the Covid virus has mutated, culminating in a more infectious and deadlier strain: COVID-23. Lockdowns are now mandatory, curfews, food shortages, and broken supply chains are a fact of life. Amid this dystopian landscape, a fearless courier, Nico (KJ Apa), who is immune to the deadly pathogen, finds hope and love with Sara (Sofia Carson), though her lockdown prohibits them from physical contact. When Sara is believed to have become infected, Nico races desperately across the barren streets of Los Angeles in search of the only thing that can save her from imprisonment … or worse.
The film opens up with a credit sequence montage of news reports discussing the coronavirus — which I will come back to — and its spread around the world and the death toll since its mutation, but the problem with sequences such as these is they too often feel like a rapid plot dump to get audiences right into the action. While Marc Foster’s World War Z wasn’t a perfect film or example of it, the way it utilized its opening credits to deliver warnings of the zombie outbreaks and the speed at which it then dove into the fast-paced, globe-spanning race against time worked well, especially for its near-two-hour runtime.
The opening credits or Songbird is indicative of one of its biggest flaws, which is simply its ridiculously poor pacing. With a runtime of only 84 minutes, one would think no time would be wasted in getting to the action of Nico racing to get him and Sara safely out of LA, or at least would spend more time making the latter’s struggle feel like a home invasion thriller, but alas no such luck. Instead co-writers Adam Mason and Simon Boyes take their sweet time introducing audiences to the ensemble cast and far too long on the romance of Sara and Nico, which may have been an intention of creating sympathy in the viewer for their plight, but the reality is it’s just boring.
The plotline for Alexandra Daddario’s struggling singer May is simultaneously woefully under-written and the most emotionally interesting of the cast as we watch her try to earn revenue via streaming during the day while carrying on a dangerous affair with a record executive in the night. Her connection to Nico and Sara’s story is very thin, but the bond her and paralyzed veteran drone operation Michael Dozer (Paul Walter Hauser) feels more interesting to watch than the central couple and learning of their own struggles prior to the pandemic and May’s during feels like the more compelling that really should have been expanded upon and better used its talented performer.
The action and thrills themselves are also wildly lackluster, with Mason continually fluctuating back and forth between distanced-aerial shots of Nico racing around a desolate LA to shaky up close work that becomes a bit nauseating to watch. The scenes shot around Sara’s apartment complex certainly offers a feeling of claustrophobia necessary for the tension, but it never escalates enough to actually raise the pulses of the audiences.
For the pièce de résistance of the s**t pile that is Songbird, the filmmakers made the decision to name the central disease COVID-23 and treat the government’s intervention of combatting it as authoritative and unflinching. In a time in which the country is still trapped in its first wave of outbreaks because people, and its leader, refuse to listen to health care officials regarding quarantine procedures and treat those who chose to listen as idiotic and sheep, maybe having the government act as the big enemy of your story without giving them a better reasoning for their methods other than killing the virus is a bad idea during this time and the wrong political message to put forward.
There’s certainly potential to come from a pandemic thriller during this time period and a small handful of positives to come from this film, namely another brilliant villainous turn from Peter Stormare, the tension is flatlined from start to finish, the story is a gross misunderstanding of timing and its script is generally underwritten, resulting in arguably the worst film of 2020. If looking for good COVID-pandemic-set content, I urge you to go watch Rob Savage’s haunting Host on Shudder, Charlotte Nicdao’s heartbreakingly-relatable performance in the special episode of Mythic Quest: Raven’s Banquet on Apple TV+ or literally anything that’s not Songbird.