Marking the first American feature film to be shot in Los Angeles during the pandemic, the premise for Songbird has caused quite a stir amongst cinephiles and critics. The first trailer certainly proved divisive; with questions raised over whether the release of the dystopian sci-fi thriller is ill-timed and insensitive considering the current second wave. Despite the pandemic-spoiltation claims and fearful scenario, there is a surprisingly hopeful message throughout, coupled with an innovative backdrop.
Directed by Adam Mason and produced by Michael Bay, Songbird centres on a Los Angeles ravaged by an ever deadlier airborne mutation of the Coronavirus, coined COVID-23, with a 56% mortality rate. It’s been four years since the outbreak began and the city is under a strict curfew, enforced by the army and the tyrannical Department of Sanitation, led by Peter Stormare’s Emmett Harland.
Citizens must comply with daily temperature tests, with those who fail finding themselves shipped off to concentration camps known as Q Zones. That’s unless you’re a ‘muney’ – an individual with a natural immunity to the virus, proven by their yellow wristband. The freedom afforded by these fabled yellow wristbands has led to a rise in counterfeit immunities, sold via a growing black market.
With the central YA inspired romance between ‘munie’ bicycle courier Nico (Riverdale’s KJ Apa) and quarantined girlfriend Sara (Sofia Carson), Songbird plays out as a viral spin on Romeo and Juliet. But when Sara’s grandmother unexpectedly falls ill, Nico is faced with a tense race against time to track down a rare and highly prized immunity band to help save them from certain detainment.
Despite the often fragmented cast, which only appear to connect via video calls for a large chunk of the film, Songbird is a surprisingly solid and suspenseful thriller. Much of the film hinges on the strength of the central performances and on the whole they’re engaging, while KJ Apa’s Nico is particularly easy to root for. Demi Moore and Bradley Whitford add the main star power to the film, with Whitford portraying a terribly despicable and privileged individual. Peter Stormare is on hilarious pantomime villain form as the Department of Sanitation, bringing to life a typical Orson Welles-esque character. As the diverging threads begin to come together in the third act, it’s interesting to see how these characters eventually connect.
Filmed using a number of different technologies, with a large inclusion of first person Go-Pro type footage, makes for an immersive and surprisingly innovative approach considering the strict set conditions. As Nico rides across the city making his many delivery drops, the empty landscapes makes for an eerie and atmospheric backdrop, reminiscent of the iconic London Bridge scene from 28 Days Later. While the world building is impressive, with a number of particularly chilling and uncomfortable scenes to add authenticity, I can’t help but feel that there’s a bigger story waiting to be told. The brisk 84 minute runtime and smaller, more constrained cast however affect the potential size and scope of the narrative.
Despite the slightly cheesy script and undeniable feel of an Amazon Prime commercial, Songbird is a surprisingly gripping and tense dystopian film framed in a Contagion style pandemic. While elements will feel potentially (and understandably) overly familiar and too soon for some, this is certainly one for those who have found comfort in similar disaster movies.