It’s Los Angeles in 2024, and SARS-CoV-2 has mutated several times. People are suffering through the 213th week of lockdown, the mortality rate of COVID-23 has risen to 56 percent, yearly deaths have topped 8 million, and the virus now attacks brain tissue. Only people who are immune and wear government-provided yellow bracelets can leave their homes. Everyone else gets their goods delivered by immune couriers, through airlock-type delivery doors that sanitize everything with UV light.
This is the world of the movie Songbird. The film’s director, Adam Mason, thought of the idea for the script (written with Simon Boyes) right after lockdowns started in March; it was written super quick, filmed in 17 days over the summer, and produced by a team that includes Michael Bay. The cast includes KJ Apa (aka Riverdale’s “hot Archie”), Bradley Whitford, Demi Moore, and Craig T. Robinson, all playing roles conceived to keep the actors as far apart as possible.
Songbird is supposed to be a thought experiment: “What if COVID-19, but worse?” But instead, this film just shows how pandemic movies failed to prepare us for the real experience of COVID-19. How could you even make a movie about a pandemic like ours, caused by a virus nobody is immune to, that can be spread asymptomatically, and results in a disease that has a relatively low case-fatality rate? A disease that—rather than infecting you right when you leave your house, like the airborne COVID-23 of Songbird, and killing you in 48 hours’ time—can be easily survived by many, and can be effectively stemmed by small interventions like mask-wearing? One that, because you can survive it, some people, including many in the government, don’t take it seriously, and so its unchecked spread causes many deaths? A movie about this kind of stretched-out catastrophe would be almost impossible to make, which, I think, is part of why some Americans have a hard time believing our COVID is “that bad.” If 9/11 was “like a movie,” our pandemic is not.
Even Contagion, the one everyone (including us!) was watching and talking about back in February and March, the “serious” one that was scientifically informed and made heroes out of the public health workers and scientists who tried to solve the problem, told the story of a “worse” virus. In Contagion, the case-fatality rate for people infected with this world’s fictional virus was 20 to 25 percent. As infectious disease researcher Trevor Bedford wrote in 2012, the movie picked a low R-naught (2) and a relatively low mortality rate for its virus, choices that “pleasantly surprised” him. But looking at the timeline of deaths and infections the movie offered, he thought that the screenwriters had sped up the pandemic for effect because they “could not resist making the pandemic scenario scarier than necessary.”
The things that happen in Songbird, this pumped-up world where COVID-19 “gets worse,” make it an object lesson in all the ways our own pandemic has been, among other things, catastrophically uncinematic. This world is a 28 Days Later–style mess—empty streets full of trash, where the only humans to be seen are wearing full biohazard suits. (In my town, even our raked-leaf pickup days continued as normal this year.) The government has collapsed, and only a few people have anything recognizable as power—the enterprising head of a delivery service, a former sanitation worker turned quarantine enforcer. Meanwhile, our legislatures and courts continue mostly as before, and if our leaders are unhelpful to those suffering in the pandemic, it’s not because they’re dead of COVID, but just because their hearts are frozen in their chests. A lot of Songbird is familiar Walking Dead territory: warlords fighting one another for scraps, impromptu cults emerging out of the wreckage. Unless you count QAnon, 2020 is really not there.
These dystopian, over-dramatized pandemic narratives set our thought patterns about infectious disease and public health in ways that haven’t been at all helpful in our actual situation. One example: Songbird’s villains are the “Department of Sanitation,” onetime “garbage men” who now carry guns and enforce quarantine. Everyone stuck in their houses has to check in with an app—tech that can assess whether or not a person is infected—every morning. If you get tagged as infected, Sanitation shows up at your door and manhandles you out of your apartment and into one of five teeming “quarantine zones” set up for the infected and their contacts. “Yesterday, I saw a 10-year-old girl getting dragged from her house and taken to the Q zone,” reports one of the many YouTubers who provide exposition in the course of Songbird’s story.
The Department of Sanitation is run by an immune man (very annoyingly, they’re called “munies”) who has risen through the ranks as his bosses died off and now is in charge of everything. He’s played as a gonzo freak by Peter Stormare; you can tell he’s meant to be out of his mind by the way he sings opera at random times, takes beer from the fridges of the homes he’s raiding to grab infected people, and says things like “Bag and tag the hag!” when he discovers a dead body. “Disobedience is spreading like a tornado!” he says to one resident through her door, after he asks her if she’s ever broken the rules to have a glass of wine with an infected friend. Meanwhile, of course, he himself is on the take, making money on the side as part of the ring selling fake immunity bracelets.
A job in public health, Songbird tells us, is one only a corrupt, power-mad sicko would take. Their advice is no help: At one point, a YouTuber complains, “What do they tell us, for the last three fucking years? Stay home and wash your hands!” They’re only good at oppressing people. Meanwhile, in our real-world pandemic, public health workers report members of the public knocking on their doors and threatening their children, trying to get them to vote against lockdowns. Some of the fear of public health officials comes from history; there were times when public health squads did actually roam the streets of our cities, backed up by police, forcing people to get vaccinated and to isolate in pesthouses away from their families. But that history might have been forgotten if not for the movies, which kept it alive like a virus in cold storage, waiting for its moment to spread again.
At the beginning of our pandemic, it became clear that because it had been decades since we had to be afraid that our family members might catch a pathogen that would put them in a lot of pain and then kill them, we didn’t have much generational memory of that experience. What we did have were novels and movies. Historians of infectious disease argue that past societies had different social responses to the epidemic sicknesses—yellow fever, bubonic plague, smallpox—that were quick to act and did horrifying things to human bodies, and to the persistent endemic killers, like tuberculosis, that were less dramatic in their progression. For obvious reasons, fictional pandemics in cinema, including Songbird’s, are always more like yellow fever: higher stakes, horrific visuals. Our long experience with this kind of pandemic story seems to have left some people unable to see COVID-19 for the threat that it is.
Songbird isn’t very good, which you might expect for something thrown together so quickly. (At the end of the film, the hero courier, Nico, says to his boss, “I realize now, we weren’t just delivering packages. We were delivering hope.” No, thank you.) But watching it in the midst of our slow-motion disaster, it looks not just bad, but ridiculous. At the beginning of the pandemic, we 21st century American babies rushed to watch movies that might tell us something about being alive during an epidemic like this one. But Songbird shows nothing about this past terrible year is much like any movie. In fact, I think COVID-19 might be too diffuse, too confusing, too awful ever to become one. Maybe it’ll make a good Netflix series someday.