"Stay safe, sane and sanitised" ...
So, Michael Bay produces a film based on the terrifying consequences of a global pandemic ...
The year is 2024. The world is now facing its fourth year of lockdown due to the worldwide Covid-23 pandemic. We're told only 0.1% of the population are immune to the virus and are identifiable by virtue of their natty yellow wrist bracelets. These fortunate few are allowed to venture outdoors - performing tasks such as make home deliveries to society's wealthiest. Everyone else is housebound under threat of martial law; citizens are required to self-check themselves for infection daily via a phone app - a Track & Trace method which appears to actually work. If you somehow contract the virus - a mutant strain of which is now believed to be airborne - Department of Sanitation goons like the vile Emmett (Peter Stormare) turn up and shunt you away to nearby quarantine camps known as "Q Zones". The media openly reports conditions at said camps as being "barbaric".
SONGBIRD focuses on a small group of characters in Los Angeles. Our main protagonist is immune surfer-type Nico (K J Apa), who delivers packages to rich families on behalf of his boss Lester (Craig Robinson). Fundamentally good-hearted Lester oversees proceedings from his control room, where he monitors his employees via GPS and has wheelchair-bound war veteran-turned-lackey Dozer (Paul Walter Hauser) employing drones to hound them if any deliveries are running late.
One such family who use Lester's services is that of William (Bradley Whitford), his wife Piper (Demi Moore) and their asthmatic twelve-year-old daughter Emma (Lia McHugh). They've made their money using their black-market connections to facilitate illicit social gatherings and city escapes for similarly rich clients.
Clients like Steve (Darri Ingolfsson), who contacts Piper asking her to get him and his partner past the city limits over the weekend for a planned shindig. Piper coolly confirms this can be arranged ... for the sum of $300,000.
Okay, then we have Sara (Sofia Carson). She's Nico's girlfriend, and due to her lack of immunity she's confined to her high-rise apartment habitat which she shares with her grandmother Lita (Elpidia Carrillo). She and Nico keep dates together every evening, albeit these are conducted over FaceTime. They do, however, have plans to change all that by someday saving the money to purchase passes off the black market which will enable them to leave the city and head for somewhere less restrictive - a friend of Nico's intimates in a postcard that Big Sur is the place to be, having only documented two new cases of Covid in the last six months.
Next up there's singing vlogger (or is that vlogging singer?) May (Alexandra Dadddario). She raises morale where she can with her a capella vocals, in return for monetary donations.
These characters, who for the first half of the film spend precious little time onscreen together, do eventually converge as the (admittedly thin) plot develops. That includes Emmett, of course - don't forget him, he was skimmed over towards the start of this review.
Indeed, Emmett rocks up at Sara's tenement building when her neighbour is flagged as having caught the virus. He gets his hazmat suit-wearing droogs to smash their way into the offending sufferer's apartment and drag them screaming on their way to Q Zone.
In the meantime, Lita falls sick with virus-like symptoms and the realisation soon hits Sara that, come the following morning's daily - and state-monitored - self-check, Emmett will be back at their door dragging them both off to quarantine camp. Relaying her fears that evening to Nico, he vows he won't allow that to happen. Well, he's a glorified postman at the end of the day, can he really stop the inevitable?
The following day, Sara dons her facemask and rubber gloves, and then enters Lita's bedroom to perform self-checks on them both. Sara tests negative but sadly the outcome is less healthy for Lita. Nico can only watch on helplessly on his phone as an authorative automated voice announces to Sara "a fever has been detected at your residence. Armed guards will be arriving shortly. You must not attempt to leave your home or you will be apprehended".
As Sara and Lita prepare to get shipped away to their nearest Q Zone, Nico frantically gets on the case trying to sort out two illegal passes to get him and his girlfriend out of Los Angeles and to safer climes - using any means necessary.
More twists occur, bridging the lives of our ostensibly disparate assortment of characters (including a kinky but non-explicit scene between two unexpectedly connected players which may lead to devastating repercussions). I won't transgress my own rule of commenting on anything which happens past the midway point, but the pace significantly ramps up at this juncture and SONGBIRD mutates into a fast-paced rescue mission.
I passed on this initially. I noticed it was a new addition to Amazon Prime but scoffed at its premise and, in particular, opportunistic timing. Oh, and the aforementioned fact that it's produced (actually co-produced) by Hollywood hollow man Michael Bay. Then I noticed it was not only directed by SGM's old friend Adam Mason, but also co-written by him and his long-term creative partner Simon Boyes. These guys were behind such intriguing contemporary horror offerings as BROKEN, BLOOD RIVER, LUSTER and HANGMAN.
As such, it's a predictably tight, fluently paced affair with slick visuals and credible performances across the board. That's its surface graces: the film is well coloured, efficiently edited and written by folk who have experience in paring things down into an action-packed streamlined 90-minute proffering.
But we're perhaps entitled to expect so much more from a film which tackles a theme so prevalent, so NOW. And it's here where SONGBIRD falls short to the point of becoming the quintessential "missed opportunity". Aside from the opening news audio snippets, there's no political context; the screenplay fails to adequately address the more far-reaching aspects of living in lockdown for years (financial, emotional, mental etc); it all feels rushed through in an effort to produce a timely action flick recklessly exploiting a time of worldwide uncertainty and fear.
I have no doubt whatsoever that Mason and Boyes didn't intend their material to play this way, but there's also a right-leaning sensibility running throughout that suggests the state are against the people and they are people to avoid. The Department of Sanitation, for example - especially Stormare's cartoonishly nefarious character - are portrayed as monsters; the quarantine camps, though never seen in great detail, sound like Hell on Earth. It seems to me like a rather juvenile dystopian view, albeit one that anti-maskers everywhere will use as a white flag to wave while crying "See! This is what it's going to come to if we don't revolt now!".
Away from the political issues, SONGBIRD is technically proficient on every level. It's filmed on RED cameras so it has a crisp and vivid HD sheen, presented in an agreeably cinematic 2.39:1 aspect ratio with English stereo audio. But even this crispness lends events a TV movie sheen, heightened by a painfully apparent moderate budget and an eclectic cast consisting of unknowns, almost-theres and past-their-primes such as Moore and Stormare. I did enjoy a cameo, though, from British ex-pat Andrew Howard, who's worked with Mason and Boyes several times in the past. That was a nice touch which will unfortunately be lost on the more casual viewer.
SONGBIRD is streaming for free now on Amazon Prime. It's presented in the above ratio and looks great, as previously stated. It's uncut at 84 minutes and 49 seconds in length.
SONGBIRD ultimately fell flat for me, despite some agreeable main characters and an initially intriguing premise. The plot was wafer thin and nothing was really said at the end of the day. It's certainly polished enough to entertain the more casual viewer - who, to be fair, it's most likely aimed at - but I do pine for talents like Mason and Boyes to return to more challenging fare soon.
Review by Stuart Willis
|Directed by Adam Mason|