From NBC’s “Connecting” to the Netflix series “Social Distance” to HBO’s “Coastal Elites” to Freeform’s “Love in the Time of Corona” and recent episodes of shows such as “Grey’s Anatomy” and “All Rise,” nearly every series and special that has incorporated COVID has done so in respectful and non-exploitative fashion in an effort to illustrate and reflect life in a pandemic.
Not so much with the slick, bombastic, Michael Bay-produced “Songbird,” the first movie shot in Los Angeles after the pandemic outbreak, which cynically uses the virus as the launching pad for a brainless thriller set in the year 2024, when things are much, much worse than today. The COVID-19 virus has mutated into COVID-23, which has a mortality rate of 56% and has led to the government to mandate the vast majority of Americans stay confined in their homes. All those infected are rounded up and dumped in overcrowded, unsanitary and prison-like “Q Zones,” where they will likely die.
Well, gee. Microwave the popcorn and gather the whole family ’round for a night of escapist entertainment!
Not that I was actually offended by “Songbird,” as it might as well have been a zombie movie given the paucity of social and political commentary other than the usual “haves vs. have nots” fare. If you can set aside the dubious decision to use COVID as a plot point when we’re still in the midst of a pandemic, this is a harmlessly forgettable actioner with the talented cast doing their best to inject some humanity and empathy into an empty-calories plot, with the standard techno-score incessantly pounding away.
KJ Apa (“Riverdale”) and Sofia Carson (“The Descendants” franchise) are Nico and Sara, respectively, the Romeo and Juliet of this story, who are deeply in love but can’t be together because while Nico is immune to the virus and spends his days zipping around the nearly empty streets of a Los Angeles as a courier delivering packages, Sara is confined to her apartment with her beloved grandmother, who is beginning to not feel so well, uh-oh. Nico and Sara spend nearly every waking moment FaceTiming, as they dream of one day getting on Nico’s motorcycle and escaping this madness.
With gas-masked, hazmat-suit-wearing troops manning the streets, you can’t travel unless you’re wearing a yellow “immunity bracelet,” which is the “Songbird” version of the letters of transit from “Casablanca,” and yes, I do believe this is the only review of “Songbird” that will reference “Casablanca.” Bradley Whitford and Demi Moore lend some pedigree to the proceedings as the Griffins, a filthy rich couple who sell immunity bracelets on the black market. (Whitford in particular is a hoot as the creepy Mr. Griffin, who slips out of the house at night for assignations with Alexandra Daddario’s May, an aspiring singer-songwriter.) Craig Robinson scores some laughs as Nico’s boss, who orchestrates package deliveries all over the city from his warehouse lair. Paul Walter Hauser does his usual stellar work as a disabled veteran who can work a drone like nobody’s business.
Then there’s Peter Stormare in all his stringy-haired, dead-eyed, maniacal glory as the head of the “Sanitation Dept.,” who gleefully leads raids on the homes of the infected. When an elderly woman is discovered dead, he exclaims, “Bingo, found grandma! Bag and tag the hag.” What a guy.
“Songbird” director Adam Mason does a solid job of amping up the tension level as Nico desperately tries to procure an immunity bracelet for Sara before the authorities bang down her door and put her in a Q Zone and out of Nico’s reach forever. It’s the classic race-against-the clock formula.
We’ll eventually see dozens if not hundreds of projects using the pandemic as a plot point. “Songbird” will be among the least memorable.