From 'Songbird' to 'Locked Down': are pandemic thrillers opportunistic or exploitative?

Less than 18 months after Covid-19 turned the world upside down, virus outbreak-themed films are all the rage

KJ Apa stars in SONGBIRD. Photo: STXfilms
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Even if the world has yet to get a hold of the pandemic, it hasn’t taken long for filmmakers to get a grip.

Less than 18 months after Covid-19 turned the world upside down, directors are filtering the new normal through their lenses. Perhaps it’s no surprise an event that has shaken the globe has been addressed so swiftly.

But is it too soon? Think back to the time of the terror attacks of 9/11, when films such as United 93 and World Trade Centre – both released in 2006 – waited a respectful distance.

Adam Mason's Songbird, a pandemic thriller featuring an ensemble cast that includes Demi Moore and Paul Walter Hauser, is now in cinemas.

It’s set in 2024, in a world where the virus has mutated and the infected are thrown into quarantine camps known as “Q-Zones”. Bracelets signifying immunity go for high prices on the black market, while an app on your phone can immediately detect positive virus transmissions. A terrifying vision of the future? Or simply another Hollywood cash-in?

The makers of Songbird, which was produced by Michael Bay (who is also behind the recent A Quiet Place Part II, with its own mankind-is-stricken tale), have spoken about "opportunistic filmmaking" – a reference to the rough-and-ready use of iPhones, and GoPro and surveillance cameras, for shooting.

But as trade paper The Hollywood Reporter noted, that phrase "could also easily describe this ponderous effort, which would more accurately be described as 'exploitative filmmaking'."

Yet such negative criticism will hardly stop the veritable cottage industry of films that have sprung up about the virus – documentaries such as 76 Days (a chilling look at Wuhan early last year), In the Same Breath (a similarly clinical look at the Chinese and American governments' responses to Covid-19) and Totally Under Control (which zeroed in on the Trump administration's errors).

There's also the television pilot These Days, Adam Brooks' indie drama about dating in the early days of quarantine, which premiered at this year's Sundance.

As for films, the array of pandemic movies ranges from the sublime to the ridiculous. Some, such as The Dog Who Wouldn't Be Quiet – a surreal Argentinian film about a health crisis – were conceived long before the pandemic began and have simply benefited from uncanny timing.

Others, such as Doug Liman's Locked Down, were written, directed and edited on-the-fly in the past year, as a direct reaction to the chaotic world events.

In the case of Locked Down, Anne Hathaway and Chiwetel Ejiofor play a London couple going stir crazy during the pandemic. While their relationship is fraying at the seams, they decide to plot a diamond heist – planning to split the proceeds with the British National Health Service.

The reviews were savage, to say the least. "My advice for surviving 2021 is simple: wear a mask, wash your hands and please, please keep your distance from Locked Down," said The Guardian.

You could apportion some of the blame for this glut of pandemic-related entertainment on Contagion. Steven Soderbergh's 2011 thriller, which detailed with unerring accuracy how government officials might handle a global health crisis, experienced renewed popularity in the early days of the pandemic. In March last year, it became the seventh-most popular film on iTunes (compared to the 270th in December 2019).

Human nature suggests we love to be frightened, which explains the popularity of zombie apocalypse tales, such as TV show The Walking Dead and Danny Boyle's film 28 Days Later.

Yet the sight of the undead shuffling towards us is clearly (we hope) pure fantasy. A pandemic story has its basis in something more real, or at least it offers an amped-up, mutated version of what we’re now experiencing. What better way to process the horrors of the past year than from the safety of your own living room?

Some pandemic films have managed to avoid the exploitation route of Songbird. Ben Wheatley's beguiling new work In the Earth – another film shot under strict Covid-19 safety protocols last summer – is set in a time where the world has been ravaged by an unspecified virus.

A scientist, played by Joel Fry, heads into British woodlands to investigate plant life, which soon leads audiences into an adventure that involves myth and mythology (and not a mention of coronavirus).

Reece Shearsmith, who co-stars as a hermit that Fry’s character meets, admits it was eerie making a film that used a virus as a jumping off point.

“I’m chilled to the bone,” he says. “What if Covid was Ebola? Ninety-nine percent … if you get it, you die. This is not that, thank God. But absolutely, it’s horrifying how easy it seems to have slipped into the world and got by everyone. This film is not very far removed, I think, from such a desolate outcome.”

This rush for a pandemic-related catharsis – virus-as-entertainment – won’t be ending any time soon.

On the way, for example, is the post-apocalyptic series Y: The Last Man – about the one remaining male left on Earth.

It seems the sheer guilty pleasure of watching an outbreak-style drama is here to stay. Whether you feel a film such as Songbird is too soon, or in bad taste, there's clearly a pent-up public desire to explore this latest horror to infect our way of life.

Songbird is in UAE cinemas now