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Thursday, April 18, 2024

Can Disaster Movies Survive a Pandemic?

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.

Songbird, unfortunately, has none of the above, and it commits the cardinal disaster-movie sin of being dull. The love story is bland, and the production value is shoddy. Viewers see LA look generically bombed-out, but the dreaded Q Zones—which sound promisingly ominous—are offscreen, relegated to brief news clips. Yawn. The movie’s MAGA-tinted perspective is ultimately the only vaguely interesting thing about it, a snapshot into a certain state of mind. Songbird also has a depressing apathy towards the virus. It’s not the main threat to the characters (the armed government agents are), and curing it is never even floated as an option. Science’s failure is a forgone conclusion, one that makes Songbird one of the most baldly cynical movies in recent memory.

But it’s not the only disaster flick out on VOD this month. There’s also the Gerard Butler–led Greenland, which follows Butler’s hero as he attempts to get his family into a bunker before space debris wipes out life on Earth. (Where is the bunker, you ask? Well, the movie’s not called New Zealand, is it?) Unlike Songbird, Greenland was shot before the pandemic and had its release date pushed back. It is in every regard a relic from another era.

Greenland is a competently made thriller, albeit one that doesn’t seem particularly fresh—it’s essentially a mashup of 2012 (all of humanity will die except a chosen few), Deep Impact (space-based calamity, everyone is very somber), and San Andreas (estranged husband and wife rekindle their love during a giant crisis). Its distinguishing factor: a rare willingness to show its characters acting unheroically for large stretches of the movie.

As asteroids begin to hit Earth, Butler’s John Garrity and his wife Allison (Morena Baccarin) find out they’ve been selected to be saved, whisked away to an apocalypse-proof bunker with their young son. They find out because their smart TV plays a message for Garrity while they are hosting a party for their neighborhood buddies, so the whole house hears. Their friends are understandably upset and scared that their hosts were chosen, but not them—it’s clear anyone not chosen will die a horrible death—and even more upset when Garrity and Allison shrug apologetically and get ready to leave without worrying much about them.

Then the Garritys get separated at the airport due to poor decisionmaking, leaving Allison with their son. She is unable to fend off kidnappers, screaming as her child is taken from her and she is thrown out on the side of the road alone and helpless. For his part, Garrity is only able to reunite with his family after committing a startlingly brutal act of violence. These jagged, realistic edges save Greenland from feeling like a complete rehashing of older movies, and it might have turned into something really special had they leaned into them even harder and let the characters really get warped by their experiences. Instead, it gets a very Hollywood ending.


Greenland is the best disaster movie of the year, but that’s not saying much; the majority of would-be blockbusters have been postponed, so it has little competition, even within its own genre. Even before the pandemic, disaster movies were in a funk, and now their fallow period could mark a turning point. Apart from a few Dwayne Johnson vehicles, like 2015’s San Andreas and 2018’s Skyscraper, the big-budget shock-and-awe disaster movies so dominant in the mid-’90s haven’t cycled back into popularity recently. (Gerard Butler’s previous foray, 2017’s Geostorm, wound up flopping hard.)

Instead, the dominant action movies of the past 20 years have been superhero films, which are a distinct genre, though they also almost always contain spectacular set pieces in which cities are destroyed and mass casualties endured. With already popular franchises like Star Wars and the DC universe demanding huge chunks of studios’ production budgets—and audiences’ attention spans—it’s harder to get one-off spectacles up and running. Tents can only have so many poles, after all.

While franchises might be crowding disaster movies out of the highest-gloss, biggest-budget showbiz echelon, they’ve flourished elsewhere. Just look at 2019’s Wandering Earth (China, sci-fi/disaster) and 2015’s Bølgen (Norway, natural disaster). Disasters are still big business in the B-movie realm, too. But while audiences may delight in the cornball chaos of, say, Sharknado, portraying recent real-world disasters through schlock is a trickier proposition. Most disaster films based on historical events tend towards solemnity—they’re Serious Prestige Fare like 2012’s The Impossible, not cheeky fare like, well, 2018’s The Last Sharknado. In this way, Songbird is a rare beast, as it is a tossed-off B movie about an ongoing global disaster that continues to kill thousands every day.

Amanda Smith, who hosts the podcast Disaster Girls with former WIRED writer Jordan Crucchiola, believes the immediate future of disaster films could hinge on how Songbird is received. “If Songbird does numbers, we’re going to see everybody doing their version,” she says. “And if it doesn’t do well critically or commercially, it’ll tank the genre.” If it flounders, Smith predicts that there may be a turn back to the zombie and vampire movies that took off in the early 2000s, with studios skittish about embracing movies that tackle the pandemic in any kind of literal way. Likewise, Greenland’s reception will be an indicator of whether or not audiences have an appetite for a revival of ’90s-style disaster films.

The metrics for success are wonky now, though, with movies going straight to video-on-demand or streaming rather than proper theatrical debuts. And disaster movies need theaters. With so much of their appeal tied up with spectacle, they can be a glorious sight on a giant screen, even when the dialog is wooden and the plotline preposterous. Finely wrought dramedies can lose something when you watch them on a laptop screen propped open on your bed, too, but they don’t lose their primary reason for existing like disaster movies do. One common trope of the disaster film is the moment when people in the film see the terrible thing about to befall them. The characters gaze at it—the asteroids, the tidal waves, the aliens, it doesn’t really matter—and the audience looks up at them looking up at their own doom, thrilled to see such havoc, snug in their remove from it. At their core, disaster movies provide a vision of comforting destruction, a safe way to imagine the worst. They are designed to be communal experiences, crises experienced and vicariously vanquished while sitting in crowded theaters alone together.

And so they’re caught in a paradoxical moment, cathartic potential capped until the current disaster passes.

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