There are essentially 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 infectious diseases that might happen 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 ongoing 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 current situation continues to devolve at an increasing pace. Granted, there is already a litany of films and TV shows that have addressed the pandemic in one way or another; they are almost always about the human condition in such an unusual and stressful time, but ‘Songbird’ is not one such film. It’s pure escapism tightly bundled in a quasi-retrospection about our unsettling realities. SPOILERS AHEAD.
Songbird Plot Synopsis
The year is 2024. COVID-19 has mutated into COVID-23, and there is no end to the pandemic in sight. At least in the US, two distinct groups of people have emerged, those who have immunity against the infection AKA “munies,” and those who don’t. The munies wear yellow bracelets on their wrists, identifying them as such, 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 evacuated to Q-Zones by the Department of Sanitation. The condition in these zones is horrendous, and people go to desperate lengths to avoid going there. Nico Price (K.J. Apa), a muny, is a courier working for Lester (Craig Robinson). He is in love with Sara (Sofia Carson), who lives with her grandmother (Elpidia Carrillo). As Sara doesn’t seem to have immunity, the star-crossed lovers must always have a physical barrier between them.
When Sara’s grandmother is diagnosed with COVID, the Department of Sanitation comes for both of them. Realizing the only way to prevent his girlfriend and her grandmother’s transfer to a Q-Zone is to get them two illegal immunity bracelets, Nico goes to acquire them from the affluent Westside couple Piper and William Griffin (Demi Moore and Bradley Whitford) with all the money he has.
Disturbed by the fact that Nico knows about their criminal activities, 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 star and cover artist. She forms a close bond with Michael Dozer (Paul Walter Hauser), a former US military personal living with a disability. Michael runs the drones for Lester. Ultimately, although her grandmother dies, Sara is proven to be immune.
Sara leaves Los Angeles with Nico, and together, they ride toward the ocean on his motorcycle. During his confrontation with Nico, Harland dies while Michael kills William with his drone as the latter is trying to hurt May. Piper shifts the blame for their illegal bracelet operation entirely on Harland and William, with her and May serving as the main witnesses against them. May and Michael begin a virtual relationship, while Nico sends his bracelet to Lester.
The film makes some strong arguments against government overreach. The dystopia it portrays is not just the result of the pandemic but also the steps the government took to fight it. The film informs its audiences that four years into the outbreak, over 180 million people have died. Various infrastructures that were quintessential in the pre-COVID world are collapsing one by one. While some have been replaced by newer versions that are better suited 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 states that the government’s response to it has been equally devastating. The Non-munies never go outside without personal protective equipment. Even the munies have to abide by the martial law, which is implemented after every sundown. The country has been turned 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 rightly concentrates on their personal and moral victories, which are no less important.
Nico and Sara
The last scene shows the lovers traveling up the Pacific Coast Highway. After spending years apart from each other, they can now finally be together. As they are both munies, the regulations that bind the majority of the population don’t apply to them. On a microcosmic level, the couple represents the triumph of personal liberty over collectivism.
Before his death, Harland told Nico that they are the gods of this new world, with the freedom to do things that are now considered impossible for regular people. He implied that others like him should follow his example and place themselves in positions of power. But neither Nico nor Sara have any desire for power. They just want to be with each other 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 ends with both of them trapped in their own cocoons of existence. However, now that insufferable feeling of loneliness that used to plague them both is gone because now they have each other. Even though there is a physical distance between them, the simple notion 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 a recluse long before the pandemic. As for May, although she has a considerable fanbase, she was still quite lonely. On top of that, she had to deal with William’s obsession with her. When Michael kills William, he frees her from his clutches; she, in turn, offers him a way out of his own seclusion.
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 extra vulnerable to the pandemic. Each action that Piper takes in the film is to ensure her daughter’s safety, including ultimately throwing out her husband and indirectly causing his death. In the end, Piper succeeds. By putting the entire responsibility of all the illegal activities on William and Harland, Piper makes sure she will be out of jail, and as a result, her daughter will be safe.
Read More: Where Was Songbird Filmed?