Songbird is a much-criticized film about a post-apocalyptic world traumatized by a certain “COVID-23.” Actor KJ Apa’s character, Nico, is immune to COVID-23 and works as a bicycle messenger catering to those lucky enough to have survived the pandemic — mostly the rich and powerful in the Los Angeles hills. The story centers around Nico’s struggle to save his girlfriend from a quarantine camp. The film is an easy target for a multitude of reasons, including its plot holes, weak dialogue, and bad characters. However, the movie is also panned unanimously for one other more surprising point: being a film that mirrors depressing and current world events. Critics and audiences alike criticize the movie for hitting too close to home rather than helping us escape into an alternate world of media and art.
Songbird feels like a bad movie because it neglects to understand what we, as an audience, need from entertainment right now. We need stress relief. Movies should help us envision a better future, and since it does not, Songbird ends up feeling like it is exploitative and profiting from our fears. Movie critic Miles Surrey said, “Songbird might claim to be about COVID, but the greediness and exploitativeness of such a film coming out in 2020 is symptomatic of a larger disease,” alluding to the possible increase of what I like to call “COVID-entertainment.”
This begs the question: What is the role of art when reality is too much to bear? Is it historical accuracy? A compelling story? Does it need to be uplifting during these times?
It is interesting to note that the American audience doesn’t seem to have trouble watching other people’s misfortunes. It seems to me that we are comfortable watching and often praise a film about children starving, people going to war, cities being torn to the ground by natural or man-made disasters, just as long as these calamities are happening elsewhere. On the other hand, it is hard to see ourselves portrayed in such a way.
For example, Ai Weiwei’s Coronation, a documentary acknowledging and educating the world about China’s response to COVID-19, has received critical acclaim. Perhaps even COVID-entertainment documentaries such as Coronation are more palatable to Western audiences because of their relative foreignness.
Personally, I think that there is nothing wrong with making content based on these emotional and eventful times, but you just have to be creative about how you do it. As a filmmaker myself, I wouldn’t frown upon the idea of making a movie titled 2020 some 25 years from now. Making a love story or thriller about COVID-19 from the lens of a big Hollywood studio, right now, while it’s all still happening, certainly doesn’t work for most.
To create media that acknowledges current world affairs and doesn’t come off as a cash-grab, studios have to get more creative. Instead of making an on-the-nose movie about the continuation of our current pandemic, make an allegory. Many successful movies have been able to use our world’s state to craft poetry out of the human condition. Take for example The Dark Knight, a movie which symbolized the late 2000s market disruption through the conflict between Batman and Joker. Why not make a film about a citizen who contracts a deadly disease in a small society on the outskirts of a rural area, forcing everyone to disperse and carry with them the survival of their town. You could call it The Human Petri Dish.
Songbird may not be a terrible film from a plot or technical standpoint, but it does a poor job of creating an entertaining world. Instead, it feels like a Hollywood production whose goal was to profit on the negative state of our world. When attempting to create a fictitious world during a time of world-wide crisis, about the world-wide crisis, you need to be creative.