It was around March 2020 when films began dropping like flies off the release calendar and delaying their release dates, in some cases by up to a year. First there was James Bond, then A Quiet Place Part 2, followed by Fast & Furious 9, Black Widow, the list goes on and on. But whilst we were waiting for these films that had already been finished or were well into post-production, there were lots of filmmakers out there who were still keen to unleash their creativity and to continue making films despite the dire state of the world.
Creatives all over the world began working on new films that could be made within social distancing guidelines and safety protocols and now, almost a year later, we’re starting to see quite a few of these films that have been made during the COVID-19 pandemic. But the big question is, what are these films like?
Some went down the route of trying to make films about COVID and about the pandemic. And this makes sense, it’s just people using their own situation and their own surroundings and writing a film about it. An example of this would be the Michael Bay -produced film Songbird, which was released on PVOD around the world in December and is now available on Amazon Prime Video in the UK. The film is set in 2024 and portrays a world now ravaged by the COVID-23 virus, with everyone having to spend every moment in lockdown, except for certain people who are immune to the virus. Despite having an impressive cast including Bradley Whitford, Alexandra Daddario and Sofia Carson, the film was largely panned by critics and it’s very clear why. The film doesn’t have engaging characters as it jumps about from scene to scene and from character to character, not giving you enough time to connect with anyone and the story itself comes across as bland. The film was marketed as a thriller but there is nothing thrilling about it and beyond that, Songbird is just bleak and depressing. It’s very unlikely that in the middle of a pandemic there’s anyone who wants to watch a film about people with a virus being taken to what are essentially concentration camps. It’s just too depressing.
So does that mean any mention of COVID or a virus should be off-limits to filmmakers? It doesn’t have to. Take last year’s hit film Host directed by Rob Savage that launched on Shudder in July. The film was shot in lockdown and the entirety of the film takes place on video meeting service Zoom. Whilst Host doesn’t mention the virus quite as explicitly as Songbird, the film is about a group of friends that hold a seance during one of their weekly Zoom calls and there are a few comments made when one character coughs about how now we have to hide a cough with a fart instead of the other way round. But the point is that Host was much more acclaimed than Songbird by both regular moviegoers and critics alike. Why was this?
As already mentioned, one reason is because nobody wants to see a film highlighting the current, depressing situation of the world; we want to watch something to escape from all the madness going on right now rather than be reminded about it every twenty seconds. If the film is going to mention the pandemic, it should be subtle and considerate. The second reason is that social distancing measures and rules around filmmaking in the pandemic has caused films to strip themselves back to basics. Not being allowed many people on set and trying to use as few locations as possible has led to an increase in single location films and films with small casts that are much more character driven. Host works so well because it went back to the basics of the genre and tried to make something truly terrifying. It’s only 56 minutes long with just half a dozen main characters and it managed to be a really strong, contained horror film.
Similarly, Malcolm & Marie, another pandemic-made film, had just two characters and one location. Whilst Malcolm & Marie may have divided critics with many criticising Sam Levinson’s writing, almost everyone have praised Zendaya and John David Washington’s performances. Being limited to a small cast and crew has seemingly benefited some productions as it’s enabled them to make a much more contained and focused film. In the past few years there have been so many big, epic films that take place on a huge scale and so it’s nice actually to just take a step back and enjoy some more refined and smaller films for a change.
However, that being said, there will always be exceptions and films that buck these trends. For example, Ben Wheatley’s upcoming film In the Earth, which centres around a deadly virus that’s ravaged the world, premiered recently at the Sundance Film Festival and was met with largely positive reviews. And there are still lots of big Hollywood blockbusters being shot at the minute and they’re having to be very careful with the ways they film. When Tom Cruise started shouting and swearing at crew members for breaking social distancing rules on the set of Mission: Impossible 7 the whole internet heard it and a big deal was made with Cruise threating to fire certain crew members or even shut down the production over safety concerns. Similarly, for 2022’s Jurassic World: Dominion over 40,000 COVID tests were taken and the entire cast and crew had to form a bubble in a hotel.
But what does this mean for smaller films that can’t add an extra $5 million to their budget to form a bubble or to spend on COVID tests? How are they supposed to get their film made? Do these new limitations and restrictions force filmmakers to tell their stories in more creative ways that ultimately bring something new to the table? The state that the world’s in right now is completely new to everyone and as filmmakers continue to navigate their way through it there will inevitably be misfires but hopefully it’ll pave the way for a whole host (no pun intended) of fresh and innovate films that take note of the situation of the world and use that to make great and innovative films.