As far as pandemics go, it couldn't get any worse.
For many of us, lockdown and social restrictions have become the norm, with some embracing the self-isolating lifestyle, and others wanting it to be over already. No matter what end of the scale you land on, everyone has endured the same cycle of long, drawn out days of nothing, binging whatever's available on your favourite streaming service, all-while reminiscing on what life used to be like. Now imagine for a moment that was life for four years. This is the surprisingly intriguing "what if" scenario posed by Michael Bay produced thriller Songbird, where Covid-19 has matured beyond its first iteration and evolved into the brand new Covid-23 virus, killing off almost 100 million people and leaving once bustling cities empty and quiet. Fortunately for a small number of people, including lead character Nico (KJ Apa), they are immune to the virus, allowing them to freely move around a world where no-one else can leave their homes. Where it might seem a little gimmicky at first, Songbird does have some merit to it, and enough meat on its bones to keep you watching till the end.
The main plot follows Nico, a courier immune to the virus who is also in a relationship with Sara (Sofia Carson), a young woman who unlike him, is unfortunately not immune, and still subject to lockdown restrictions. When she is faced with the impeding threat of being tossed into the city quarantine zone, Nico desperately tries to find a way to save her before it's too late. The story's main plot is okay, Apa and Carson's chemistry on-screen is by far the highlight of the movie as far as the performances go, really making their character's relationship feel authentic and grounded, which is enough to get you even a little bit invested in them. Every interaction, conversation and action taken by the pair is electric in how committed and engaged they are in their roles, making their performances an immediate standout element in what is otherwise a mediocre plot.
Alongside the main plot is a couple of B-plots which aren't overly interesting in comparison. One follows a wealthy couple who are dealing in black-market immune bracelets, and another follows a young singer/streamer who finds connection with a crippled war veteran. The first isn't too engaging, and is only really there to further the larger story with some less than interesting characters. The second on the other hand is mildly thought-out, tapping into that all too familiar notion of having to keep in touch online in the absence of physical interaction. Some of the dialogue singer, May (Alexandra Daddario), and war vet, Michael (Paul Walter Hauser), have actually has a remarkable level of relatability, as both casually exchange their feelings and how the pandemic has affected them both. But altogether, these side-plots don't amount to much, and a lot of the plot points throughout the movie are frankly predictable, with most of the twists and turns easy to spot from miles away. This results in a story that's fairly enjoyable, but without any real stakes it's hard to get attached.
A lot of the films context and exposition is delivered from the outset, with the opening credits featuring news footage of people in hazmat gear carrying bodybags, updates on the global death toll from newscasters and even some vlogger commentary on the worsening pandemic. As odd as it sounds, the use of vloggers as a means of delivering exposition felt almost ingenious. After all, it's fair to say that influencer culture has grown exponentially in the current pandemic, with social platforms becoming littered with content creators of all shapes and sizes. This minor inclusion feels massive in terms of lending credibility to the movies hypothetical scenario, and the incorporation of a culture that has boomed in the wake of Covid-19 makes it all the more believable and actualized.
There are things I wish the film did explore a little more, such as the ominous Q-zone, where those infected are forced to live in until they die to the virus. It's given its fair share of importance from the get go, which really makes you wonder why we hardly ever see it. We know is that it's apparently hell-on-earth and that the local government supposedly do some shady stuff there, but we never see inside, nor does the film indulge the curiosity it fostered among the audience. As much as it does a great job of building its fictional world, songbird hardly takes time to delve into it, ending up with a lot of great but wasted substance.
Despite this, the setting itself is fairly well established and consistent throughout, even if it's a little extreme. We get our first glimpse at the fictional Covid decimated world from the opening seconds of the movie, as lead character, Nico, is seen cycling through a deserted and straight-up post apocalyptic looking neighborhood, littered with concrete roadblocks and military signposts warning people to wear their masks. It's more than enough to grab your attention, giving a slightly over-the-top glimpse at what could've been had the pandemic been horribly mishandled. Panoramic shots of the empty city streets and towering skyscrapers give off strong "I am Legend" vibes, and one shot of a disheveled fairground covered in some pretty sinister graffiti further lean into this apocalyptic aesthetic a little too well, at times making you wonder when the rabid hordes of undead will show up. It all makes for a setting that is sinister in both its presentation and how eerily familiar the empty roads and silent streets truly are.
While Covid-23 thankfully doesn't turn people into the walking dead, it does create another type of monster. The movies big bad so to speak, other than Covid, is the mask-wearing, heavily armed department of sanitation, who have become their own quarantine enforcement agency. Whenever they're on-screen the tone instantly changes, as the faceless boogeymen of the pandemic are always seen ramming down doors, dragging people away, and wielding rifles that they seem far too comfortable using. The hazmat wearing goons of the department of sanitation are terrifying in their own right, serving as an allegory for what too much power can do to both people and institutions. But it's easy to see how they become so menacing when introduced to their less than sane department head, Emmet Harland (Peter Stormare). Emmet is a delusional maniac that is made more dangerous by the amount of power he holds (sound familiar?), as his immunity to Covid makes him believe he is beyond human, superior in every way, and, in his own words, a god. He is one of the few people to benefit from the pandemic, rising above his role as a simple garbageman, all the way up to head of sanitation, where he has successfully been able to implement his twisted methods and ideas on how those infected are dealt with, even taking the liberty of killing "potentially" infected individuals himself. It is in Emmet and his subordinates that Songbird gets most of its thrilling and exciting moments, with an ambush turned shootout, and a home break in that will leave you anxiously holding your breath.
I wouldn't go into Songbird expecting much, but I also wouldn't expect too little. What you'll find is that Songbird is more than a pandemic cash-grab and proves to be a semi-enjoyable thriller that makes up for its less than enticing plot by immersing you in its fascinating take on the Covid ridden hell-scape that could've been...or still could be.