There are majorly two subcategories of pandemic films, historical and speculative. As the names suggest, the former type of films depicts outbreaks of the past (Ingmar Bergman’s 1957 classic ‘The Seventh Seal’ for instance, its setting is a Sweden ravaged by the Black Death). In contrast, the latter shows deadly diseases that might spread in the future (Steven Soderbergh’s 2011 masterpiece ‘Contagion’). What is unique and deeply uncomfortable about writer-director Adam Mason’s ‘Songbird’ is that it’s a speculative science fiction thriller about the current-running COVID pandemic.
The story is set only four years after the film’s release, and so the world it shows is the worst-case scenario if the present pandemic situation continues to persist at an increasing pace. Granted, there is already a series of films and TV shows that have looked onto the pandemic in one way or another; they almost always depict the human condition in such an uncommon and stressful time, but ‘Songbird’ is not one such film which sets its apart from others. It’s pure escapism tightly bundled in a quasi-retrospection about our disturbing realities. SPOILERS AHEAD.
Songbird Plot Synopsis
The year is 2024. COVID-19 has turned into COVID-23, and there is no end to the pandemic in sight. At least in the US, two different groups of people have evolved, those who have immunity against the infection AKA “munies,” and those who don’t. The munies wear yellow bracelets on their wrists, for identification, and do jobs that require fieldwork. The other group of people must stay at home and check their temperature with their phones every morning.
The ones who are found to be infected are forcefully isolated in Q-Zones by the Department of Sanitation. The condition in these zones is horrifying, and people fo everything humanly possible to avoid going there. Nico Price (K.J. Apa), a muny, is a courier working for Lester (Craig Robinson). He loves Sara (Sofia Carson), who lives with her grandmother (Elpidia Carrillo). As Sara seems to lack immunity, the star-crossed lovers must always maintain a physical barrier between them.
When Sara’s grandmother becomes infected, the Department of Sanitation comes for both of them. Nico realizes the only way to save his girlfriend and her grandmother’s from being transferred to a Q-Zone is to get them two illegal immunity bracelets. He goes to acquire them from the affluent Westside couple Piper and William Griffin (Demi Moore and Bradley Whitford) with all the money he has.
Nico Succeeds In Protecting Sara
Disturbed by the fact that Nico knows about their criminal works, Piper sends him to Emmett Harland (Peter Stormare), the head of DOS and the Griffins’ business partner. William often leaves his home at night to visit his mistress May (Alexandra Daddario), who is a social media sensation and cover artist. She develops a close bond with Michael Dozer (Paul Walter Hauser), a former US military personal living with a disability. Michael runs the drones for Lester. Eventually, although her grandmother dies, Sara turns out to be immune.
Sara leaves Los Angeles with Nico, and they ride towards the ocean on his motorcycle together. During confronting Nico, Harland dies while Michael kills William with his drone as the latter is trying to hurt May. Piper puts the blame for their illegal bracelet operation fully on Harland and William, with her and May serving as the main witnesses against them. May and Michael start a virtual relationship, while Nico sends his bracelet to Lester.
The film makes some valid arguments against government overreach. The dystopia it depicts is not just the because of the pandemic but also the steps the government took to fight it. The film estimates its audiences that four years into the outbreak, over 180 million people have lost lives. Various infrastructures that were major essentials in the pre-COVID world are collapsing one by one. While some have been reconstructed according to this changing world, like Lester’s courier service, they are just not enough. For all intent and purpose, it’s truly the end times.
The film shows that the government’s way of handling it has been equally devastating. The Non-munies never step out without personal protective equipment. Even the munies have to adhere to the martial law, which implements after every sundown. The country has been converted into a police state, run by a megalomaniac and corrupt individuals like Harland. Mason knows that upending that entire administrative edifice is impossible, at least for the characters he created for this film. Instead, he correctly focuses on their personal and moral victories, which are equally important.
Nico and Sara
The last scene has the lovers traveling up the Pacific Coast Highway. After spending years away from each other, they can now finally be together. As they are both munies, the restrictions implied on the majority of the population don’t apply to them. On a microcosmic level, the couple represents the victory of personal liberty over collectivism.
Before his death, Harland told Nico that they are the gods of this new world, with the independence to do things that are now near impossible for regular people. He added that others like him should follow his steps and place themselves in positions of power. However neither Nico nor Sara have any wishes for power. They just want to be together and live their lives to the fullest. In the end, they get both.
May and Michael
Unlike Nico and Sara, May and Michael don’t win the genetic lottery. The film concludes with both of them entangled in their own cocoons of existence. However, now that unbearable feeling of loneliness that used to torment them both is gone because now they have each other. Even though there is a physical barrier between them, the simple fact that there is someone out there who thinks about you can be enough.
At one point in the film, Michael says that his disability made him live in solitude long before the pandemic. As for May, although she has an appreciable fanbase, she was still alone. Moreover, she had to deal with William’s obsession with her. When Michael kills William, he escapes her from his clutches; she, in turn, offers him a way out of his own solitary life.
Piper and Emma
The most important person in Piper’s life is her and William’s daughter, Emma (Lia McHugh), who has the auto-immune disorder, making her even more endangered to the pandemic. Each act of Piper in the film is for her daughter’s safety, including eventually throwing out her husband and indirectly causing his death. In the end, Piper succeeds. By putting the entire blame of all the illegitimate activities on William and Harland, Piper ensures she will be out of jail. As a result, her daughter will be safe.