‘Swan Song’ Is Powerful Existential Sci-Fi With A Somber Emotional Touch – Review
The sleek and sterilized minimalism of Swan Song is a perfect fit for the aesthetic of its streaming home on Apple TV+, but it also makes for an intriguing juxtaposition within the film itself.
The cold, computer-run environments may seem at odds with the very human and emotionally-driven story that writer/director Benjamin Clearly is attempting to tell, but his subdued and contemplative approach seeks to merge the two in a hopeful (but still naturally cautious) look at how rapidly evolving technology could and likely will continue to change humankind. What Swan Song proposes about the not-too-distant future is frightening, but not in the way other cautionary tales of technological advancement usually explore.
The film centers on a loving husband and father named Cameron (Mahershala Ali) who lives an idyllic life with his family sometime in the near future. He has been diagnosed with a terminal illness and, despite frequent headaches and recent seizures, has thus far been able to hide his condition from his wife Poppy (Naomie Harris) and their son, Cory (Dax Rey). Time is running out for Cameron, and he must find the courage to tell them the truth soon. At least he would, if it weren’t for Dr. Jo Scott (Glenn Close), who presents him with a second option, one arguably even more difficult and heart-wrenching–but not for his family.
Dr. Scott and the institution she works for have created something extraordinary, revolutionary, and incredibly unsettling all at once. Cameron can choose to have them make a total duplicate of himself; a perfect clone with all of his memories – even subconscious ones – and personality intact. The clone will simply become the new Cameron, having no knowledge that he is a clone at all, and go on living Cameron’s life with his family, who are also none the wiser. This will spare Poppy and Cory from heartbreak and grief and give them a chance for a longer life with their husband/father. However, it also leaves Cameron as the one to shoulder all of those feelings himself. And that’s not even getting into the ethics of the whole thing.
That’s the brunt of much of the movie, which keeps a focus on Cameron’s inner turmoil over the decision he’s faced with. Even as he tentatively begins the process, he swings back and forth between going all the way through with it or just calling the whole thing off. It’s through Ali’s pained and conflicted looks of uncertainty and fear along with a subtle but effective score from Jay Wadley (Driveways) that Swan Song conveys the big existential questions its asking like all good sci-fi – what it really means to be human, and in this instance if that could ever truly be replicated. How could a clone, no matter how meticulously crafted, possibly ever pass as the real thing? How could it have the same life experience; the same essence? Could it even be considered human? And is this really what would be best for the family?
We’re shown Cameron’s life, and more specifically his relationship with Poppy, as the cloning process rapidly sorts through all of his memories like a home videotape on fast forward. The chemistry between Ali and Harris is impeccable, selling us on a marriage that’s been through elation, strife and everything in between while still adoring one another. In fact, it’s the performances in general that do most of the heavy-lifting in the film, and they help elevate a relatively bare script to give it the proper feelings of mourning and contemplation that it needs.
Some points of Clearly’s script tip the scales far too much one way; Poppy has only just begun to move on from a different major loss in her life, is currently pregnant, and Cameron’s career as a graphic designer appears to be what’s paying the bills in their upscale home, as opposed to hers as a musical therapist for children. Even worse, at one point Poppy declares that she couldn’t go on living without her husband, and at another Cameron overhears a conversation where she just straight up says that she’d be fine with a clone being a way to bring someone back from the dead. So that’s that, and one aspect of the moral dilemma for both Cameron and the audience is seemingly solved.
Thankfully, once the replica is complete and he and Cameron finally come face to face with one another, Swan Song is able to find its rhythm and Ali delivers a dual powerhouse performance as both men. Cameron is a man on his way out and saying his goodbyes, while his clone is the same person imbued with a newfound gratitude for life. Resentment bubbles away beneath the surface of both of them – Cameron can’t stand to watch the replica casually laugh and chat with his wife, and the replica questions the nature of his existence, as is par for the course for similar sci-fi tales. While Clearly divulges into some tense sequences that enter thriller territory, the film never goes in the obvious direction you think it might. Instead, it wisely pulls the reins back when needed to keep its focus where it should be.
Swan Song is ultimately a story of how all of us eventually get left behind in the end, and what matters is how we choose to greet that end and deal with it. Lives go on without us, even those of the people closest to us, and accepting that along with our mortality is one of the biggest lessons the film wishes to impart. A worthy concept by itself, but it’s the added layer of the miracles that technology can bring, and how it blurs the line of what’s real and what’s human, that makes the film stick in your mind long after the credits roll. This is a moody and melancholic film, but one that successfully hits the emotional wallops it tees up.
Clearly’s film often struggles to establish an identity all its own (much of the world’s look and advanced devices feels too much like an episode of Black Mirror mixed with Ex Machina and are often just distracting), but by its end, it delivers an emotionally riveting tale (and an exceptional Mahershala Ali performance) that’s both bittersweet and cathartic.