The Lighter Side of the Apocalypse
Film Review of Songbird (2020) by Michael Bay. A Film about COVID-19. Produced during COVID-19. The mere intertwinement of these two polar opposites question the entire perception of apocalypses. The often portraited picture in relation to the movie shows a catastrophic, almost post-apocalyptic Los Angeles (see picture 1). Columns of smoke above the skyline, while helicopters circle the skyscrapers in the background. The bridge is closed with big yellow road blocks stating “Biohazard – No entry”. The city is divided by a huge concrete wall covered in graffiti: huge letters asking for help and freedom and a songbird in between the promising dystopian, post-apocalyptic setting of this catastrophic movie.
Whilst the anticipation of the movie had been promising, the remote media response after the publication and the reaction of viewers is entirely understandable. Above all, the film received differing reviews. Interestingly, the public audience either liked or disliked the movie. The ratings rank with either 5-star recommendation or one star recommendation and very little in between.
We argue since it is the first major cinematic project produced during the pandemic of COVID-19, whilst being about the pandemic, it is still an interesting watch.
WHAT TO EXPECT
Los Angeles, 9am, 2024 – citizens must do a face scan via app on their phones which can determine their current bodies’ temperature.. If the app detects fever, the person will be visited shortly thereafter by the ‘sanitation’ department which will banish the person into quarantine quartiers. Of course, only if the person survives till then.
The movie depicts a rather horrifying futuristic scenario:
From the start of the pandemic in 2020 to 2024 the COVID-19 virus has evolved during multiple mutations, the future virus COVID-23 is controlling all parts of human life.
An app is used to detect the virus which is just one of the eerie parallelisms to reality; thoughts which writers Adam Mason and Simon Boyes evolved further. What was originally planned as yet another zombie apocalypse movie, was produced within the first months of lockdown in 2020, shot in July, and released in December online. Director Michael Bay developed an imaginary of a viral apocalypse, one which we might not even want to imagine: life in the US is controlled by the virus, only immune persons and the military are allowed to be outside on the streets. The protagonist is one of the lucky ones. Nico, who thanks to his immunity, delivers packages to people all over LA. However, his immunity does not protect him against isolation: he can still pass on the virus, hence, one of the most poignant moments of the film, the filmmakers invented a fast disinfection device, which sanitizes the parcels by fast deep freezing technology. ZEIT online states this invention as the only clever momentum of the film: “the practical disinfection fast refrigerators that have been integrated into almost every apartment entrance. Couriers put their packages in, customers press the blast freeze button and take out safe goods on the other side of the refrigerator.”
How does the audience usually react to the film? What audience’s reaction surprised you the most?
Each audience has been very different. In New York, all the New York jokes made people laugh a lot. And the world I present in the film felt very foreign to the audiences that had grown up primarily in big cities. In Memphis, I sensed the audience was watching cautiously at the beginning because they did not want to see people in their part of the country as objects of mockery. Once they realized that the film was not making fun, they became deeply engaged, not in small part because they know people who are living like this or who are invested in this kind of lifestyle. In Europe the fascinating experience for me is to see that what I have experienced as normal is foreign to the people who have watched it here. I find each of these audiences very compelling as a filmmaker. As viewers, we project ourselves into the films that move us. The diverse range of reactions shows me that the film is working.
The documentary was completed in 2021. After rewatching it, is there something you would change or something you left out and wished to film if you could do it again?
No, not really. The issues remain and I continue to be compelled by the people and the subject matter. The film is what it needs to be. I wouldn’t change it.
What is the apocalypse and/or post-apocalypse for you? What references do you have to the terms? (From your individual perspective)As I don’t come from a religious tradition, my main references for the apocalypse come from a distanced vision of it through the history of art. Those were always the best paintings, lots of tiny details to look at (thinking of Hieronymus Bosch, or any of those fantastic late medieval and early Renaissance Italian painters). All kinds of things to imagine, the pleas, the cries, the desperation. I do have a vivid imagination. But I don’t think about the apocalypse or post-apocalypse in my everyday life.
Does the apocalypse and/or post-apocalypse play a role in your work? And if yes, how so?
When I think about my work I think about history and I think about how people live in the present. I think with passion, with anger, with determination about how the world is unjust and extraordinary at the same time. So, if I think anything about the future in relation to my work it is a desire to communicate with people, to promote conversation, and to move them.
What are some of your favourite pop culture references to the (post)apocalypse — whether it's films, books, a YouTube channel, or music — what can you recommend?
I am a big fan of Alexander Scriabin’s unfinished composition “Mysterium,” which was supposed to be performed in the Himalayas, with casts of thousands and bells hung from clouds to herald the apocalypse and rebirth of the world. That is quite something. Scriabin began plans for the “Mysterium” in 1903 but it remained unfinished upon his untimely death in 1915. In 2015 I made a sound piece and an animated film referring to the “Mysterium.” The research process was fascinating as I learned more about Scriabin and his transformative vision.
But my absolute touchstone for all things that we think are absolutely positively going to be apocalyptic but turn out not to be is Steven Spielberg’s 1977 film “Close Encounters of the Third Kind”. Because the aliens turn out to be great musicians and pretty nice after all. That’s a vision I can relate to.
Might there be a bizarre correlation between the production company of the film and this clever storyline? Or is it rather simply a coincidence? (Comment by the editor: it is not). Clearly, what society realised during lockdown: parcel delivery has gained significant importance for keeping the way in which we consume alive during lockdown and projected its founder to be the richest man alive within no time. Hence unsurprisingly Nico quotes romantically at some point in the film, that he realised he wasn’t 'just delivering packages’, instead was ‘delivering hope’.
It is indeed almost cynical, regarding the precarious work conditions of the workers of the gig economy company. During the COVID-19 pandemic, such workers delivered, and continue to deliver, all sorts of essential goods and even food for the better paid academic classes and those with the privilege of working from home for little pay with de facto high health risks.
Besides hope, Michael Bay introduces, in true Hollywood cliché, a little love story between Nico and Sara establishing the lighter side of living in the pandemic despite the fact, that both cannot meet if not via video call. Sara does not possess an immunity bracelet and therefore cannot leave the house. Nico tries to organize an immune bracelet for Sara in a life-or-death struggle and leads him to connecting with all sorts of characters on the brink of humanity. Once again, the film automatically draw parallelism to reality, regarding the trade for faked vaccination passports.
In the end, the Guardian summarises the movie accurately: the movie “attempts to meld together a Romeo & Juliet-lite love story with a sub-Contagion thriller which bravely expands out to an ensemble piece with Demi Moore and Bradley Whitford as a rich, insulated couple selling immunity bracelets, Alexandra Daddario as a cover-singing YouTuber (who serves as example for the title of the film), Craig Robinson as Apa’s wheeler-dealer boss, Richard Jewell’s Paul Walter Hauser as a disabled veteran and Peter Stormare, in laughably pantomime villain mode as the nefarious head of sanitation. Taking elements, we’ve come to know so well (from the viral terminology we spout daily to the isolated way we now live) and using them to create an even scarier world is, at times, mightily effective, if also a little bit exploitative to some”.
Nevertheless, the constellation of the various characters and the thrill of imaging a post-apocalyptic world in regard to COVID-19 is the only reason why people would want to watch it. Indeed, the viewer can predict its outcome, but in regard to its proximity to reality, especially when watching it during lockdown, it can be a horrifying experience for some. It’s for this very reason, and in regard to the overall setting of the movie, that it can be so aptly described in a nutshell: It is only 94 minutes long, time that can be spent worse; but also better.