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'Songbird' Review: It should have stayed in its cage.

Oh no...

Sophia Carson in Songbird.
(Image: © Platinum Dunes)

Our Verdict

‘Songbird’ mixes its messages, loses itself in a hopeful yet unintentionally double-sided narrative, and speeds through pandemic assessments without any desire to actually asses our situation beyond “relatable” exploitation.

For

  • 🎶 Craig Robinson driving a golf cart mini-bar
  • 🎶 Peter Stormare as the guy who steals your beer while tearing your sick family members away

Against

  • 🎶 A pandemic movie that undermines our current situation
  • 🎶 Wants to be sweet, at the expense of logic
  • 🎶 Messages bounce around
  • 🎶 Messily plotted

Under pandemic circumstances, filmmakers face an exhaustive litany of pressures and precautions when movie-making in the COVID-19 era. Rob Savage’s screen-life dazzler Host proves that there’s still a responsible, thoughtful, and astonishingly effective way to make a “pandemic” movie because it’s not that - it’s something natural fitted to new guidelines. Adam Mason’s Songbird, on the other hand, is everything we don’t want our “pandemic cinema” to be. Tastefulness in question, ethics blurry, and, for lack of a better phrase, “too soon.” Oh, and top all that? It’s just a dumbfoundingly tone-deaf and, well, irresponsible narrative.

It’s 2024. The world has been decimated by an evolving COVID-19 without vaccination. Globally, 110 million are dead with 8 million of those reported coming from America. Only “Munis'' are allowed into public by the newly operational “Sanitation Department,” like bike courier Nico (K.J. Apa). For whatever reason, he’s immune to the sickness which makes him a perfect bicycle messenger for delivery operations like Lester’s Gets which are raking in dough from wealthy clients who pay top-dollar for daily drop offs. Nico stashes each generous tip until he can whisk his lovebird Sara (Sofia Carson) to Big Sur where the pandemic no longer reaches (apparently). Then, the unthinkable happens. Sara’s grandmother falls ill, the Sanitation Department comes knocking, and if Nico doesn’t intervene, Sara will die in an overpacked “Quarantine Zone” or “Q Zone” where the infirmed waste away forgotten.

Oh, also? May (Alexandra Daddario) hosts daily sing-along request livestreams and moonlights as a personal pandemic stripper. Dozer (Paul Walter Hauser) is an Afghanistan war vet in a wheelchair with weaponized drones who starts privately connecting with May. William (Bradley Whitford) and Piper Griffin (Demi Moore) manage an underground “Immunity Bracelet” racket that can grant possible infectees uninhibited mobility, while also raising an immunocompromised child (Lia McHugh) who William endangers every night when he goes out and gets his rocks off at motel hookups. All of these personalities collide, in selfish ways tied to an overall message that declines further exploration of the pandemic itself.

Well, let’s backtrack. The beginning of Mason’s film paints a dystopian Los Angeles where highways are smothered in overgrowth, and civilization has been boarded in either personal domiciles or massive “Q  Zone” camps. Beginning credits scrawl over a mishmash of satirical YouTuber conspiracy videos or actual news clips like those monkeys taking over an Indian town,  complete with jamooks ranking about “fake news.” Sensations of paranoia are supposed to take hold as we’re introduced to an extreme future hellscape while we, ourselves, aren’t yet certain about America’s real-time responses. But, honestly? That’s not even where Songbird loses me, and chances are, will lose you too.

For a movie that desires to prey on collective fears of a virus our government can’t seem to control, and starts alike Mason’s horror catalog, the narrative flow loses touch with what could become poignant commentaries. An assertion is made quite early to ensure audiences understand Nico represents essential workers who risk their lives, their sanity, to keep our country running. Lia McHugh’s doubly at-risk daughter presents an option for the film to say something larger about making proper decisions for those who cannot. Instead, these topical moments are fleeting at best, as, I shit you not, Nico goes on a suicide mission like some pandemic-denier fantasy where love conquers all. Sara has been exposed to something, a new ravenous form of COVID-19 or lesser, but in any case, she’s possibly a carrier. Songbird, in response, launches into one man’s jailbreak obsession that endangers countless others by snapping an immunity bracelet on her and hoping the ruse works. Cue the sappy reunion music while I’m left screaming, "Isn't that a bad thing?!"

As a technical, filmmaking-merit experience, Adam Mason traverses his gauntlet of restrictions like a professional. The man who’s worked with minimal casts on set and still scared us in Hangman, or executed a revolting but cinematically impressive one-take horror show in Pig (now destroyed, no joke). Songbird sections off its characters, whether it’s Craig Robinson (namesake Lester) or Paul Walter Hauser’s performances being planted in single-location seats, or the Griffins, at most three on screen. Peter Stormare stars as sleazy Sanitation Department agent Emmett Harland, whose ICE-adjacent capture methods require backup, but cronies all wear hazmat suits. It’s not that thrills lack in short bursts, or Mason mishandles his crew behind the camera. It’s more that I never know which side of the pandemic Songbird is on, and intentions are murkier than a contaminated blood test.

Herein lies the problem.

Songbird never wants to engage in any constructive scripting that speaks or ponders an end to the pandemic, or dismissals of selfishness, or frankly, anything substantial. Songbird is a narrow sighted exacerbation of a pandemic that’s nowhere near gone-enough to exaggerate  alternate outcomes that feign conflicts, double-back on importance, or conclude in a fashion that undercuts any meaningful satire. The threat of a pandemic is brushed away as Nico defies protocols, acts “Hollywood heroic,” but erases any and all impact that might have been made by preceding warnings or events. It’s a film that so desperately wants to land that euphoric ending to show we can keep on living, even in doomsday scenarios, but prattles some finale narrator lines like “we weren’t delivering packages, we were delivering hope,” like Nichoals Sparks was appointed WHO’s chief expert. All the film does is wrap on Nico, Sara, May, Dozer, and a few others. Who needs to address why Big Sur isn’t affected, or how many innocents Nico threatens (for romance), or...the list scrolls for days.

I don’t begrudge the art of “pandemic cinema.” Songbird doesn’t fail because it dares to challenge audiences to recontextualize our behaviors, our depressions, amidst COVID-19. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. Adam Mason’s lack of reflection on our lived-in outbreak is a glaring deficiency wrapped in this frenetic Michael Bay “escape” flick that mines the shallowest aspects of isolation, digital relationships (Daddario interacting with a fan on a whim, wtf), and the horrors of shut-in losing themselves (Hauser has this traumatic moment that paints him as a disturbed, broken man, that’s somehow sold as...uplifting). Songbird needed to be structurally ironclad, but instead, it’s a slight romantic thriller that even wastes another delightfully deranged Peter Stormare creepoid. A film that wants to be a momentary antidote, so misunderstood by virtue of its own rudderless approach to Hollywoodizing COVID-19.

Songbird will be available to stream December 11th, 2020.