As the pandemic persists in the final months of 2020, movie lovers everywhere rejoice for the newest release of trailers. In late March, the outbreak of COVID-19 halted movie productions and closed theaters across the country. Regardless, film still had an important role in filling the countless hours of quarantine and distracting from the endless and morbid news of the year.
Now, under strict health and safety guidelines, movie sets are finally reopening to produce the feature pictures of 2021. As production companies recognize the new escapist quality of film amidst the pandemic, many choose to focus on topics unrelated to coronavirus—but Michael Bay hasn't hesitated to capitalize on the drama of 2020. His newest movie, Songbird, deviates from this norm, diving into themes emanating from the current global crisis.
Classic Michael Bay films, including The Purge and A Quiet Place, follow the same formula: a mixture of death-defying stunts, special effects, and fast-paced drama to form the perfect sci-fi thriller. Songbird is no exception. While the trailer opens with the cheery chords of Bob Marley’s “Three Little Birds,” the plot quickly darkens its tone. Set in the year 2024, the film takes place in a world devastated by COVID-23, a deadlier, mutated form of the coronavirus. Quick shots of an apocalyptic Los Angeles, filled with pollution, abandoned buildings, and heavy military presence, stress the dire effects of the pandemic as the Earth plunges into chaos and quarantine. While some fight against the harsh restrictions of lockdown, weaponized medical workers are prepared with lethal force in identifying the sick and sending them to “quarantine camps.”
Actors K.J. Apa and Sofia Carson take on the main roles of Nico and Sarah, a couple separated by the boundaries of isolation. As a courier with a rare immunity to the virus, Nico freely travels throughout the city while Sarah remains isolated in her apartment. When Sarah contracts the virus and risks being sent to a quarantine camp, Nico must fight the threats of an oppressive government and pandemic to save the woman he loves.
Aside from Apa and Carson, the cast promises a wide range of talent. Demi Moore, famous for her roles in Ghost and Charlie’s Angels, specifically joins the film to play Piper Griffin, the matriarch of a powerful family thriving in the wake of this crisis. With the trailer’s premiere, much of the cast has gone to Instagram or Twitter to further promote the movie.
After the trailer’s release on Oct. 28, it was immediately met with criticism for its exploitation of the pandemic. Although Songbird is based in a fictional universe, its parallel to the current global crisis seems insensitive to those still suffering the effects of COVID-19. The movie portrays extreme isolation, destitute, and death as works of fantasy, while millions of Americans currently endure these tragedies as COVID cases are once again on the rise.
Last April, the majority of the population was sent into quarantine, resulting in a spike in the unemployment rate to 14.7%, the highest it has been since the Great Depression. Around 20.5 million citizens were left without the means to provide for themselves and their families during this time of great desperation and uncertainty. While the government’s mishandling of COVID continued, many additionally lost friends and family as the death count tolled in over 200,000 fatalities due to the Coronavirus. Songbird mimics these realistic feelings of panic and mourning as tools for entertainment, ignoring the current horrors that still plague the country rather than a fantasy world. Although documentaries on COVID-19 exist, they were filmed with the primary purpose of informing their audience, rather than cashing in on the nation’s fear in exchange for entertainment value and box-office money.
The comment section on the trailer on Youtube perfectly captures these criticisms. While some point to conspiracy theories—including predictive programming—as explanations for this absurd film, the majority just take note of Songbird’s distasteful mockery of the pandemic. One commenter specifically highlights the movie’s insensitivity in the short period between the coronavirus outbreak and the trailer’s release, explaining that it was akin to "releasing a 9/11 movie between the planes hitting and the towers collapsing.” After 9/11, the film industry did avoid the topic of terrorism out of respect for a nation still in mourning. By contrast, filming for Songbird began less than three months after the pandemic hit the U.S., with the plot approved and cast already selected.
In congruence with its tone-deaf nature towards the pandemic, the film also incorporates controversial themes regarding police violence. Songbird draws on the topic of police violence, as the trailer features militarized medical workers invading homes of the suspected sick, commanded to “shoot on sight” if a citizen escapes quarantine. This comes in the wake of this year's major mobilization against racist and violent policing that unjustly and disproportionately affects Black Americans. Given that a no-knock warrant caused Breonna Taylor’s death, a tragedy that further exposed violent policing in America, this film blatantly disrespects the movement of social change and exploits the trauma faced by victims of racism, all for a more sensational plotline.
Aside from its parallel to the current disaster, the film’s plot and prediction for the future of COVID compound our pre-existing fears. For months, the majority of Americans did their part in wearing masks, staying home, and practicing social distancing. While these actions briefly slowed the virus’ spread, the recent surge of COVID-19 in rural areas of the United States has made these fears insufferable. Back in March, many hoped that the coronavirus, much like the flu, would be gone by summer. But as we enter our ninth month in the pandemic, the end appears nowhere in sight. Songbird predicts that the world has at least four more years and different mutations of the virus ahead, further filling an anxious audience with unnecessary panic.
While Songbird is problematic in its offensive parallel and desensitization of this year’s catastrophes, it might play an important role in predicting the future of the pandemic. This film can also serve as a warning to America. While mutations of the virus, “quarantine camps,” and weaponized healthcare workers seem hyperbolic, Songbird does ask us to consider what could happen if serious action is not taken towards stopping the virus. Perhaps this is the real reason this film makes us so uncomfortable: its threatening proximity to 2020’s reality and our potential future.