Can Disaster Movies Survive a Pandemic?
December 25, 2020
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This spring, when it looked like movies about pandemics might lose their appeal—too close to home, you know?—audiences instead eagerly sought them out. Contagion and Outbreak surged up streaming charts.

That appetite might explain the rationale behind Songbird, a Michael Bay–produced riff on the coronavirus pandemic, which is out this month on video-on-demand. While most big-budget popcorn movies were pushed until next year, Songbird was created specifically to arrive in this moment. It was the first film to shoot in Los Angeles after the lockdowns were eased this spring.

The quick-turnaround production is evident in the final product, which has a bad fast-food quality to it, like director Adam Mason was frantically trying to feed a fleeting craving before it passed. Unfortunately, he forgot to make the movie good. You can’t serve a turd between two buns and call it a hamburger. Or rather, you can try, but people will notice.

Disaster movies, like horror flicks, reflect the anxieties of their era, although they rarely do so as transparently as Songbird. Generally, people seek out disaster films because they want the vicarious thrill of watching destruction from the safety of a theater. With Mason’s film, they’re watching a pandemic movie while quarantined at home, zero steps removed from the tragedy.

“We go to the disaster movie to engage with real threats in a way that is less horrifying than reading the news,” says Thomas Doherty, a cultural historian and professor of American studies at Brandeis University. In the 1950s, many of these movies used alien invasions or radioactive creatures to explore Cold War fears. In the ’70s, big disaster blockbusters like The Towering Inferno and The Poseidon Adventure wrestled with the threat of technologies failing people. “Usually, disaster movies are just a beat to the left or the right of what is actually happening,” Doherty says.

Not Songbird, which contains no allegorical layer. The movie is set in 2024, in the 214th week of a hardcore lockdown; Covid-19 has continued to mutate, and its latest strain, Covid-23, kills most people who contract it. It follows a poor, immune courier Nico (KJ Apa and his abs) and a wealthy, squirrelly couple (Bradley Whitford and Demi Moore) as they navigate a world ravaged by the virus and a logistically confusing and draconian government-mandated lockdown. Everyone except the immune, aka “munies” (who comprise a fraction of a percentage of the population), are perpetually stuck in their homes, which are equipped with special disinfecting technology to receive packages and supplies, regardless of their income level. (How they pay rent or afford groceries is never explained.) If they violate the rules or have even a slight fever, they are captured by armed guards and trucked off to squalid death camps called “Q Zones.” These are overseen by an all-powerful Department of Sanitation, which has acquired a despotic grip on the nation and is ruled by a twisted unnamed bureaucrat who kills for sport, never mind how. Nico asks his rich clients for help securing his girlfriend a black market fake immunity bracelet so she can defy the lockdown and escape with him. Yes, that’s right. The bad guy in this movie is an evil government employee enforcing public health laws, and the good guy is bravely trying to skirt those laws to see his new girlfriend. One wonders if the plot outline might’ve been cribbed from right-wing message boards.

Now, Songbird might be forgiven its red-state-bait opportunism if it were any fun. After all, disaster movies don’t need to have good politics or an uplifting vision of mankind to work. There are different definitions of a disaster movie, but the one nonnegotiable to qualify for the genre is a commitment to the spectacle of destruction. (This is why a 9/11 movie like Oliver Stone’s World Trade Center is a disaster movie, but Paul Greengrass’ United 93 is not.) A moderately engaging, suspenseful story helps, but ultimately a disaster movie has to deliver the whiz-bang.

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