It most likely doesn’t need to be repeated, but COVID-19 might be the one and only thing that has impacted every single person on the planet since World War II. The pandemic has led to lockdowns worldwide, sparking fear and panic in millions along the way and causing a devastating 1.9 million deaths at the time of writing… so, of course, the film industry (along with everybody else) has been impacted. But is it wise for the film industry to show this impact?
After productions were temporarily halted, films are now starting to come out after having been shot under COVID restrictions. Some of them don’t mention the pandemic, meaning that they only appear a little strange due to some of the restrictions in place on shooting. However, now more and more films are appearing to be specifically about the pandemic, namely Songbird (Adam Mason, 2020), Borat: Subsequent Moviefilm (Jason Woliner, 2020) and the upcoming Locked Down, said to be directed by Doug Liman and releasing later this year. Of course the question that has to be asked is, where are the ethics of Hollywood?
The first film to mention the pandemic appears to be Rob Savage’s Zoom inspired horror film Host (2020), a film that was shot under COVID-19 restrictions via Zoom in a similar way to Unfriended, which only mentioned COVID once or twice as setup for the film’s plot (the characters meet with a spirit guide via Zoom, rather than meeting in person because of the pandemic). This made the film feel relevant but not in a way that made COVID something to be feared more than it already is – it only sits in the background during the opening scenes. Ethical enough, certainly!
However, this is where Songbird comes in… a horror film about a post-apocalyptic world ravaged by COVID-23 (yes, really!) in which Nico (played by K.J. Apa) fights through the dystopian world against a fascistic government and violent vigilantes to make his way to the love of his life, Sara, whilst she is in lockdown. Offensive on almost every level possible, it can only be assumed that Songbird was thought up by a greedy producer and rushed through production so that the studio could still make money during a time when cinemas are closed and the film industry is struggling financially. Understandably, the reviews were far from positive for Songbird. For a film to have been released so quickly after the pandemic started, and to turn it into such an extreme spectacle with even a cartoonish Orwellian government in the style of 1984, seems utterly ridiculous.
Oddly, Borat: Subsequent Moviefilm was the far more respectful film, and was much more careful about how it chose to represent the pandemic. The film was coming close to finishing shooting when COVID interrupted (this much is evident in the film – the story changes entirely to fit with the pandemic), and of course the film then jokes about COVID. Mostly pointing its jokes towards anti-maskers and people who think that the pandemic is caused by either 5G networks or the government, the film kept audiences on board until it divided them with a plot twist involving the illness and Borat that appeared tasteless to some.
There is always a reason for why films about tragedies tend to come out long after those tragedies happen, and this string of films about COVID seem to be solidifying this rule once again. When Remember Me ended with a 9/11 plot twist ten years after the attack happened, people were still incredibly upset and annoyed, so it’s genuinely surprising that film studios have chosen to make films on COVID as quickly as they have, even if they try to pass it off as COVID-23 (embarrassingly). Surely there are billions of other topics a film can be made on that don’t serve to remind the audience of the situation that has killed millions and that is still worsening – documentaries on the pandemic are far more understandable, too – as it strikes as grossly exploitative to use something as life-altering and damaging as COVID-19 to help market a film and boost ticket (or rental) sales. Studios may be struggling, but cheap exploitation certainly isn’t the answer. It’s for good reason that it took until the 2010s for films and TV series to focus on Chernobyl, and it’s as simple as having respect for victims.
Songbird (2020), directed by Adam Mason, is available on digital platforms. Watch the trailer below: