Review: Songbird is a dystopian story where coronavirus is far worse

Songbird (MA15+, 84 minutes)

2 stars

Some reviews of this film have complained that it exploits the pandemic. I'm not sure that's a very fair criticism since many movies draw inspiration from horrific real events - serial killers, war, terrorist attacks, on and on - and this is an obviously fictional story set in the (near) future.

What might have grated with some is that sound-and-fury man Michael Bay (Transformers et al) was one of the producers. There's also been publicity about how this film was pitched in March last year when the pandemic got going and premiered in December, a remarkably quick turnaround that indicated a desire to cash in on current events.

It might be seen as opportunistic and a little tasteless but if that bothers you, many Hollywood movies probably aren't your thing.

What really matters here is the film itself, which is gimmicky and disposable but a watchable curio.

Songbird is a dystopian sci-fi story set in Los Angeles in 2024. The coronavirus has mutated into the more severe COVID-23 with a massively increased death toll and martial law has been declared. The city seems to be in permanent lockdown and people are required to self-administer daily temperature checks on their mobile phones. The infected are forcibly removed by Department of Sanitation workers to Q-Zones, primitive quarantine camps from which there is no escape.

Much of this is relayed in an audio-visual mosaic at the beginning but the focus soon becomes smaller, narrowing in on a few characters whose stories intertwine. The Q-Zone, interestingly, is merely background: another film might have used it as a major element. But, probably out of necessity, this is small-scale and low-key for a Bay production: there's not too much in the way of violent, loud spectacle.

Nico (KJ Apa), a former law student and paralegal, works for Lester (Craig Robinson) as a bicycle courier, delivering legally dubious packages to those who can afford them. He's one of a small number of "Munies" - people immune to the virus, identified by a special yellow immunity bracelet - which allows him this freedom, although others can still pick up the virus from his hair and clothes so he can't have direct contact with people.

He does, however, have a virtual relationship with someone who's in lockdown. Sara (Sofia Carson) is confined to her apartment with her ailing grandmother so she and Nico can only communicate via screen or when he steals a few moments to talk to her through her door.

Other characters include the Griffins, a wealthy, unhappy couple whose only shared concern seems to be keeping their daughter safe from the virus in their fortified home. Piper (Demi Moore) is running an illegal business and her husband William (Bradley Whitford) keeps going out, ostensibly to help them survive but really to carry on an affair with online singer May (Alexandra Daddario).

May develops a more meaningful relationship with one of her fans, the paraplegic war veteran Dozer (Paul Walter Hauser), who's used to living a confined, solitary life so has been less affected by recent developments than many.

There are a lot of unanswered questions here, like how do people obtain food and water (electricity doesn't seem to be a problem). Perhaps these were addressed in the original version: there was, apparently, some heavy cutting that is presumably why some subplots and characters feel underdeveloped.

While director and co-writer Adam Mason's idea was to focus on romance and relationships rather than politics, Songbird comes off as a bit thin in story and characterisation. The actors are decent but they're not always given a lot to work with in the script. Peter Stormare is the worst served: Harland, his power-mad Sanitation leader, is simply a hammy villain.

For all its faults, Songbird is a watchable curio. If the concept of it offends you, give it a miss, and it's by no means essential viewing, but there will, no doubt, be other coronavirus movies (Seen at Dendy).

KJ Apa in Songbird. Picture: Roadshow

KJ Apa in Songbird. Picture: Roadshow

This story Covid story is a watchable curio first appeared on The Canberra Times.