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Non-Review Review: Songbird

Perhaps the most surprising thing about Songbird is how tame and lifeless it is.

The trailer arrived in a multimedia firestorm, positioning the movie as a piece of “pandemic-xploitation”, set against the backdrop of a hypothetical future where the current global pandemic had raged for four years. In this climate, public health officials have begun abusing their power, the black market thrives, the government has set up ominous and secretive “Q-zones” to house those affected. “Once you go to the Q-zone, you don’t ever really leave,” an influencer remarks early in the film. The United States operates under “marshal law”, as virus has “mutated” to attack the brain.

Sick privilege, bro.

All of this sounds very crass and very charged, something similar to what happened with the release of The Hunt earlier in the year. Songbird and The Hunt are movies that position themselves as genre pieces with biting resonance to a highly charged and combustible situation. However, like The HuntSongbird is ultimately something of a damp squib. It makes grand gestures towards the current moment, importing all manner of iconography and language associated with the pandemic to give it a patina of relevance, but ultimately ties it to a fairly conventional story.

This is perhaps the biggest difference between something like The Hunt and something like Songbird. The Hunt was ultimately a standard genre movie that disguised itself as something more relevant, but it was reasonably well constructed. In contrast, Songbird is an absurdly slipshod production. The film often feels like it was cobbled together over a weekend to ensure that it would be released at a point where it was still relevant and timely. The result is a shoddily made and vapid piece of work, that somehow feels even more vulgar than a full-throated exploitation film might.

Cooking up a Stormare…

Songbird is full of elements that never quite click or gel, of concepts and buzzwords and characters thrown into a jar and violently shaken with no regard for how well they are supposed to integrate with one another. Songbird is primarily driven by the relationship between bike courier Nico and his girlfriend Sara. Nico is immune to the virus, and so can travel relatively freely. Sara is trapped at home with her grandmother.

The first half of Songbird is largely dedicated to worldbuilding, mapping out the space inhabited by the characters and charting their relationships to one another. This is both interesting and frustrating. It is frustrating because the film’s structure means that it takes almost forty minutes of this eighty-minute movie for the inciting incident to occur. It is also frustrating because so much of what Songbird establishes about this dystopian future is ultimately shallow and disconnected.

The worldbuilding in Songbird seems largely derived from the dark id of the internet. The film leans rather heavily on the idea of social media. Characters are constantly videoing themselves or watching videos of others. This is a potentially interesting angle in the midst of a pandemic – the idea of creating these virtual avatars as surrogates for human connection. However, the idea is never developed or explored. Short snippets suggest influencers profitting from the pandemic, but mostly it seems to exist to assure audience members that the film is down with the kids.

Similarly, there’s a lot of attention paid to the mechanics of this dystopian future. Citizens are obligated to check their temperature daily, and when they fail the tests they will be hauled away to the mysterious “quarantine zones” that have been set up. These are known as “Q-zones”, in what feels like an allusion to “Q Anon” conspiracy theories. The news suggests conditions in these camps are less than ideal, and that nobody ever leaves the camps – presumably even if they survive infection, which is presented as absurdly unlikely.

Dialing down the paranoia.

However, perhaps for the best, Songbird never explores this thread. The “quarantine zones” are only seen in establishing shots and used as a vague threat by the corrupt head of the local sanitation department, Emmet Harland. It is never explained what happens in these camps. The film suggests that they might be equivalent to gulags for political prisoners, or that they might even be death camps, but that idea is just left floating idly in the film.

This is similarly reflected in things like the film’s approach to masks. The opening scenes feature a paranoid video rant from a figure clearly meant to evoke Alex Jones, talking about how the government is using the pandemic to control people – however, this is never really explored or developed. Songbird doesn’t grapple with the idea of armed militias or anti-mask or anti-vaccination protests, even as it tries to capitalise on the fear in which they trade. For all the paranoia that Songbird stokes, it doesn’t do anything with this.

There are flashes of a more interesting and provocative film in these segments, even if the movie lacks the courage of its convictions. Notably, what little the audience sees of the temperature app behaves like something from a Paul Verhoeven film. It counts down ominously to its life-or-death diagnosis. When the user does have symptoms, it goes full fascist. “Armed guards will be arriving shortly,” it states matter-of-factly. “Bribes will not be accepted.” There’s something darkly comic in this. Unfortunately, nothing else in Songbird is as self-aware.

This is perhaps most obvious in the characters who inhabit Songbird, with the film spending forty minutes effectively introducing them to the audience and mapping their relationships. In some ways, it is strange to see a pandemic thriller that behaves somewhat like a Robert Altman movie, something of an anthropological study of lives in Los Angeles. However, none of the characters are especially interesting, each serving as something of a plot function and a justification for a plot mechanic in the second half.

Don’t mask, don’t tell.

So Nico works for a courier service operated by Lester, who just happens to know identity-forger William Griffin, who has an immuno-compromised daughter named Emily. When Sara’s grandmother is diagnosed with the disease, setting in motion a race against time as Nico tries to find a way out of the city for Sara, all of these connections become convenient plot levers. The same is true of the dynamic between drone operator Dozer, who forges a relationship with social media star May, who is having an affair with William.

None of these characters get any development beyond explaining the connections between them that will allow the dominoes to fall in the inevitable direction that the plot needs them to. There’s an artlessness to all of this, where it seems like the movie has been awkwardly reverse-engineered to ensure that the characters end up wherever they are supposed to be. Meanwhile, none of these individuals feel like actual characters, instead serving as clichés who spout pseudo-profundities like “I was on lockdown long before it was fashionable.”

Songbird doesn’t really have anything to say about the current moment or the pandemic. This is most obvious when it comes to how the film treats those immune to the virus. They are know as “munies” in the parlance of the film, a word that seems to have been chosen purely because it sounds like “muties”, which sounds like a word from superhero cinema. This comes into play at the climax, in a villainous rant from Emmet Harland, who seems to show up at every quarantine himself. “We’re not human anymore,” Harlan boasts. “We’re gods.”

That is not a climax to a movie about the current global pandemic. That is the climax to a lame superhero knock-off. Despite the sense that all of the characters exist in order to justify the flow of the fairly simple plot, Songbird often seems to have no idea where it is going or what it is doing in a given moment. Instead, it often feels like an awkwardly assembled bunch of “trailer moments”, such as a surreal masked sex scene which oddly enough feels like something that probably exists in a more honest form on PornHub.

Come what May.

This messiness is frustrating, because Songbird is somehow also incredibly generic and predictable. It is very obvious early on where the movie will end up, how the film will leave characters like Nico and Sara, if only because almost every other vaguely similar movie leaves those sorts of characters in exactly this situation. (No points for figuring out how it communicates that ending either, particularly as it relates to the movie’s core sympathetic supporting character either.) The only problem is that Songbird has no idea how to actually get to that image, and so trips over itself.

There’s something staggeringly awkward in this, as if Songbird has a bullet-point summary of what it has to do, but no understanding of how these things fit together. Early on, the film seems to be suggesting a colder and cynical look at the modern gig economy and the way in which services like home delivery are putting workers at risk. (“Rich people need their sh!t,” Lester explains.) However, at the end, the film offers a schmaltzy feel-good affirmative bow, with Nico reflecting, “We weren’t just delivering packages. We were delivering hope.”

It does not help that, even on a basic nuts-and-bolts level, the film-making is incredibly awkward. Part of this seems to be purely practical. Songbird has an impressive cast including Demi Moore, Bradley Whitford, Peter Stormare and Craig Robinson, but it appears to have paid for that. There is a strong sense that Moore and Robinson in particular had limited availability and so their scenes were all shot in single locations with minimal involvement of other cast members.

However, Songbird is also frustrating in its use of slow motion, low angles and intense handheld close-ups. These elements can be used effectively, and a pandemic thriller should be able to use close-ups to unsettle an audience, but the execution is too clumsy. Director Adam Mason seems to be channelling producer Michael Bay, but somewhat less convincingly and effectively than Bilall Fallah and Adil El Arbi with Bad Boys for Life. While Fallah and El Arbi honed in on what makes Bay’s style work as much as it does, Mason settles for unflattering imitation.

Quaran-teen romance.

Songbird is empty and hollow. That is somewhat more frustrating than being tasteless and crass.

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