Songbird movie review: screechingly out of tune

MaryAnn’s quick take: An appalling melange of insipid disaster drama and implausible romance with a bit of dystopian satire thrown in. This is a crass cash-in meant to prey on our pandemic anxieties, not grapple with them.
I’m “biast” (pro): nothing
I’m “biast” (con): nothing
(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)

If I wanted to be generous, I might imagine that rushing a movie such as Songbird from conception to release in a matter of months was an attempt on the part of its creators to manage their fears and anxieties about the viral pandemic we have all been enduring over this period of time. This is, after all, a movie set in the year 2024, when COVID-19 has mutated into the far more contagious and far more lethal COVID-23, and the planet is in its fourth year of lockdown. A form of creative cinematic catastrophizing, as it were.

Songbird Peter Stormare
“Which one of you brought the receipt for Mrs Buttle’s husband?”

Alas, such generosity would require some evidence of reflection and self-awareness up on the screen, some hint of a grappling with the mess of emotion this year has brought us. Instead we have an appalling, outright stupid melange of insipid disaster drama and implausible romance with a dash of dystopian satire thrown in, because who needs things like consistent tone? The CV of writer (with Simon Boyes) and director Adam Mason is comprised mostly of cheap schlock horror movies, and that’s the realm in which Songbird foully squats, seemingly little more than a crass cash-in meant to prey on our anxieties, not explore them. To hunker down at home streaming this junk — or, worse, to venture out to cinema, as one is able to do in some areas of the UK even as a newly mutated variant of Sars-CoV-2 runs rampant — is a kind of self-flagellation the likes of which none of us needs right now. Or ever.

The disaster drama here is all anonymous figures in hazmat suits dragging sick people off to quarantine camps, and UV-sterilizing hatches through which one receives one’s deliveries of essentials from the outside world. (The UV hatches are the only remotely inventive or even mildly interesting thing here. And they’re mere set dressing.) The romance is between Nico (KJ Apa) — who makes deliveries on bikes around Los Angeles, a job he can do because he has a rare immunity to the airborne virus — and Sara (Sofia Carson), who is pretty. It does not appear that they have ever met in person, and it is unclear what has convinced them that they are in love. Perhaps bland is attracted to bland?

To hunker down at home streaming this junk is a kind of self-flagellation the likes of which none of us needs right now. Or ever.

The drama and the romance are paltry, but that is nothing to the weak satire, in the form of Emmett Harland, the head of LA’s Department of Sanitation, which is responsible for what remains of health care in this benighted city. It’s possible that Peter Stormare (Strange Magic, Penguins of Madagascar), who plays him with a style that might be dubbed manic fascism, has been imported from a low-rent knockoff of Terry Gilliam’s Brazil, but it’s tough to see such a character working in that movie, never mind this one.

In fact, almost nothing works here, and it’s tough to decide which of all the stuff that doesn’t work is the most offensive and annoying. It might be how wide off the mark the movie is about how people are coping with a seemingly endless stay-at-home order. There are the barest hints of what must be a vibrant virtual culture, via May (Alexandra Daddario: Baywatch, San Andreas), a singer who performs and interacts with her online fans regularly. But it seems like in this world, the important stories to be told are happening there, not with Nico and his wholly unsupported sentimentalizing, as when he says things like “We weren’t just delivering packages, we were delivering hope.”

Songbird Demi Moore
Why wait for the virus to kill someone when you could just shoot them?

Maybe “hope” is meant to refer to black-market immunity bracelets, aping the authentic one Nico himself wears that allows him free passage in a city under strict martial law? Nico is trying to score one from Piper (Demi Moore: Corporate Animals, Very Good Girls), who makes and sells them, so that he can save Sara from being sent to a quarantine camp, which are apparently awful places. But if the virus kills fully half of those it infects within a day and is so airborne that you can catch it just by walking around alone outside, why would anyone chance a fake immunity bracelet? The odds are way worse than Russian roulette.

Songbird doesn’t seem to recognize this fundamental flaw at the heart of its high concept, and particularly what this would mean for Nico and Sara, until it has painted itself into a corner, and then tries to paper over it. It makes for an infuriatingly idiotic ending to a story that has already been doing the precise opposite of delivering hope. It’s just more enraging plague-year crap driving you to yell at the TV.

Songbird red light
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