It’s not exactly a hot take, but I’ve never liked Michael Bay. Aside from the somewhat-passable The Rock (a film possessing entertainment value that rests solely on the performances of Connery & Harris, even Cage was too annoying there), his films are predicated on terribly written characters, rubbish humour and things that go bang. Aside from butchering the childhoods of many a millennial with his abysmal Transformers franchise, Bay has exploited true crime and real war stories with the cynically motivated and inaccurate Pain & Gain and Pearl Harbour, not to mention the painfully long, saccharine space disaster Armageddon. I usually rail against the notion of objectivity in art, but I’ll momentarily discard that principle to state that he is, for my money, one of the most demonstrably awful filmmakers who was ever regrettably bestowed with a camera. His smartarse, douchey defence of his oeuvre is that he ‘makes films for teenage boys’, but that doesn’t cut the mustard when you make pictures that should never be viewed by anybody.
Songbird, a new dystopian thriller inspired by the COVID-19 pandemic, hasn’t actually been directed by Bay (that crime has instead been committed by Adam Mason) but instead produced by him, and the stench of his creative control is noticeable from a mile away. If it isn’t bad enough utilising an ongoing tragedy to create a delusionally shallow race-against-time movie, the film makes no sense and is marred by afterthought subplots that never go anywhere, decent actors wasting their talent and a pungent coating of gag-inducing Hollywood cheese.
The year is 2024, and the virus that has made our current year a living hell has mutated into COVID-23. The United States has effectively become a totalitarian nation, the general populace forced to undertake a daily temperature analysis using their phones that alerts the authorities should the individual show signs of the disease. These unfortunate souls have their doors beaten down by hazmat-suited police and are forcibly dragged away to the ‘Q Zone’, brutal internment camps where the infected are left to die surrounded by strangers. Those with immunity, imaginatively termed ‘Munies’, are permitted to travel outside providing they wear a yellow wristband indicating they are impervious to the virus, everyone else expected to abide strict lockdown measures.
One such Munie is Nico Price (KJ Apa) a young courier who wizzes around on a motorbike delivering packages to wealthy clients for his employer Lester (Craig Robinson). Due to an address mix-up a few years prior, Nico made the acquaintance of Sara (Sofia Carson), a young woman living in an apartment with her grandmother Lita (Elpidia Carillo), and the two have been in a committed virtual relationship ever since. Nico is in regular contact with a friend living in COVID-free Big Sur, and he hopes that he & Sara can one day elope there in person and leave the misery of LA far behind.
With these two lovebirds taking a narrative front-and-centre, peripheral characters include William & Piper Griffin (Bradley Whitford & Demi Moore), two of Lester’s regular customers who rake it in trafficking in counterfeit immunity wristbands. Sleazy William has been carrying on a secret sexual relationship with May (Alexandra Daddario), a young singer who receives online donations for her renditions of whatever songs her users request. One of May’s devoted fans is Michael Dozer (Paul Walter Hauser), a disabled military veteran who also works for Lester, flying drones over the city to keep an eye on Nico and his fellow couriers. Striking up an online friendship with May after a donation request, Dozer’s nights begin to feel a little less lonely as the two have frequent heart-to-hearts over video chat. The links between these characters prove instrumental in a conundrum that is about to befall the principal infatuated duo.
When Lita begins to displays symptoms of COVID-23 one night, a panicked Sara is overcome with sadness and terror, the latter worsened in no small measure by the presence of Emmett Harland (Peter Stormare), the psychopathic chief of LA’s Sanitation Department (a garbage disposal-turned-secret-police outfit that oversees arrests and Q-Zone quarantine) who has been creepily sniffing around Sara’s apartment complex due to a rise in cases. Knowing that she will also be forcibly interred when Lita inevitably fails the daily temperature test, Sara frantically contacts Nico pleading for help. The plucky young courier must now endeavour to find a way to get his one true love out of the grasp of the deranged Harland, a mission that will see the paths of all aforementioned characters cross in a tale that’s about love conquering all, or something.
The most frustrating aspect of Songbird (and believe me, there are many) is the fact that none of the performances could conceivably be called ‘bad’. Apa and Carson are competent enough in their portrayals and I weaved in and out of mild engagement as to whether they would actually get their day in the sun or if proceedings would end horribly, but the disjointed script ensures that none of the roles here are memorable given the flimsy and utterly weird narrative strands.
This film could have been set in any other kind of dystopia, preferably with more substantive writing to establish the status quo and its resonance in the character’s lives. I say this because the use of coronavirus as a framing device is completely and utterly perfunctory, the film offering nothing insightful whatsoever in regards to how comprehensively the virus has altered human culture in 2020, let alone four years from now. The bizarre subplots that centre on obsession, adultery and Stormare being inexplicably mental never coalesce into anything coherent or meaningful. It’s as if the writers took Contagion, Strange Days and a bunch of horrible soap opera storylines, chucked it all in a blender and launched the results at the nearest wall.
Jacques Jouffret’s cinematography at least imbues the film with the daunting atmosphere that it intended, but that is the extent of positive appraisal. You’ve likely been mulling over how the story might end as you’ve read this review, and all I can say is that you’re correct. A shaggy dog story is typically defined as ”a long-winded anecdote designed to lure the audience into a false sense of expectation, only to disappoint them with an anticlimactic ending or punchline.” The only reason that it would be erroneous to give Songbird this classification is that it doesn’t intend to be one, yet another testament to the work’s stunning incompetence. Honestly, this has usurped all of the other worst films of the year and is unequivocally one of the crappiest motion pictures I’ve ever seen. Re-watch your favourite film, binge-watch that show you’ve been feeling unsure about, fiddle with your perineum, literally do anything else except watch this.