You know who really understands the tragedy, trauma and generation-defining social change of the coronavirus pandemic? The guy who made Transformers: Revenge Of The Fallen.
Director, producer and CGI obsessive Michael Bay recently announced that he’s working on a film called Songbird – a bleak dystopian thriller that’s set two years in the future after all attempts to stop the pandemic have failed. Think Armageddon, but real. Or Contagion, but dumb.
According to Deadline, Songbird is planning to tell the story of the coronavirus in the “spirit of Paranormal Activity and Cloverfield”, which presumably just means that it’s going to be shot with a shaky handheld camera, and not that it’s going to involve ghosts and aliens. Production is taking place in Los Angeles during lockdown, with producers somehow ensuring that social distancing measures are kept in place for the cast and crew. Assuming we’re all actually allowed back into cinemas soon, expect the film to race for a worldwide release later this year.
If it seems like a grossly inappropriate idea, it is – but the problem here isn’t just with Bay, it’s with anyone in Hollywood who thinks what we’re going through right now deserves to be packaged up into a blockbuster. There are a billion personal stories of loss, hope, courage, boredom, love and hate being written by people all over the world at the moment, and some of them will absolutely deserve to be told when the time is right, but we don’t need “Coronavirus: The Movie” trying to repaint the bigger picture whilst we’re still living through it.
The best way of looking at any key moment in history is from a safe distance. The more time passes, the less responsibility writers and directors have to tell the side of the story that everyone expects them to. Remember Oliver Stone’s World Trade Center? Made just five years after 9/11, one of America’s most incendiary political directors gave us a film about Nicolas Cage saving people from a burning building.
If he made it again now, would he spout one of his famous conspiracy theories? Drill into the political fallout? Give us a different perspective from the ground up? Tell us a story we didn’t already know? The wounds were far too fresh at the time to even think about making anything other than a heroic, safe, worthy, bland blockbuster, and the film has since slipped into irrelevance.
Make a big coronavirus movie now and the same thing would have to happen out of respect for all the people that have lost their lives, their jobs, their way of life – and we’d only end up with Nicolas Cage heroically saving old people in an ICU ward instead of something that actually feels relevant. Spike Lee’s 25th Hour was made just one year after the September 11th attacks, but by pushing those events into the background and only ever acknowledging them by mood, he made a far better film about 2001 than Stone ever did. How long before we can make indies about furloughed factory workers? Romcoms about couples stuck in lockdown? Horrors about deserted office blocks?
A few weeks ago, a BBC reporter in India came across a migrant family that had been displaced by the lockdown, walking barefoot over 600km to their home. The story made the news because the reporter took off his own shoes to give to them – an act of human kindness that speaks for the many other small acts of heroism going on all over the world in NHS wards, food delivery trucks and charity shelters. How much more would a film of those events say about 2020 than Michael Bay’s viral apocalypse?
What’s more, we already have a load of good movies about pandemics – and none of them have the weight of reality hanging around their necks. Outbreak (1995), Contagion (2011) and Flu (2013) are all great watches (maybe for a different time…) and all paint a picture of a real-world medical emergency that never actually happened – focusing on doctors, politicians and patients dealing with fictional disasters. If you want a movie set in the future where a pandemic has already wrecked everything, watch 12 Monkeys (1995), 28 Days Later (2002) or Children Of Men (2006). If you want something more fun, go for one of the million movies about diseases that turn people into zombies, vampires or flesh-eating cannibals. And if you still really want to watch Michael Bay fuck up a film about a real tragedy, go watch Pearl Harbour.
The coronavirus will undoubtedly make for a lot of great movies over the coming years, and some of them might even feel like the definitive story of our times, but racing out into the empty LA streets to rush Hollywood’s first big response into cinemas feels like more bad news.