The brilliance of science fiction is that it uses grand concepts to depict simple ideas. The simple idea at the core of Benjamin Cleary’s debut feature, Swan Song, is that we don’t want to let go of what we have, whether the result of death or some other form of expected privation. It explores that simple idea through a story involving self-driving cars, robots who can custom-produce your exact food order on the spot, and oh yeah, cloning. And it does so with a remarkable amount of emotional potency.
Cloning has had a chequered history on film. Thematically, it’s been a symbol of the dangers of technological advancement, focusing on the insufficient consideration of the morality underpinning any scientific endeavour. That’s a useful topic, but it has often been approached with a strident broadness that fails to appreciate the potential nuances. Technically, it’s been the occasion for bad visual effects in which the film’s lead actor is duplicated, and maybe also the occasion for more laughter than moments of profundity.
Swan Song takes both of those problems and turns them on their head. Thematically, it’s not a one-note criticism of a potentially beneficial technology. Technically, it puts multiple Mahershala Ali’s in the same space with admirable verisimilitude. Emotionally, it’s a devastating contemplation on everything from identity to letting go, one that benefits immeasurably from the performances of Ali and his co-stars.
Cameron Turner is the loving husband to Poppy (Naomie Harris) and father to Cory (Dax Rey). It might be 50 years from now, or it might be only 20. Like any family, they have happy memories, like meeting each other over a case of mistaken ownership of a chocolate bar, and sad ones, like Poppy’s year-long depression following the death of her twin brother Andre (Nyasha Hatendi). Cameron has been throwing himself into his work as a coping mechanism for dealing with his wife’s depression.
She may soon have a lot more to be depressed about. Cameron is sick, a fact he has not shared with anyone, but which is obviously clouding his thoughts in a way she can perceive. He can either tell Poppy and Cory that they are about to lose a father and husband, in addition to the brother and uncle they have just lost, or before he does or says anything he can’t un-do or un-say, he can opt in to a new technology that might allow him to prolong his life – in a manner of speaking.
Dr. Jo Scott (Glenn Close) is the pioneer behind a new procedure that will allow Cameron to be fully cloned, and to have the complete set of his memories transferred to the clone. The process has worked so well on the previous two test subjects that not only could their closest love ones not distinguish the copy from the real McCoy, but even the clones themselves are not aware of their own artificiality. The idea will be to create this healthy copy of Cameron and insert him into his home life without his wife and son being any the wiser, while Cameron deteriorates and eventually dies in Dr. Scott’s remote forest facility. Needless to say, it’s a situation replete with existential confusion both for Cameron and for his clone, who goes by the name Jack to reduce some of the ambiguity.
Ambiguity is key to the rich themes explored in Swan Song. There are times when it’s difficult to remember whether we are following Cameron or his clone, and this is not due to any carelessness on the part of Cleary, a filmmaker from whom we should expect big things. Dr. Scott tells Cameron that only a single freckle on his palm distinguishes him from the clone, and he can check that any time he gets confused about which of the two he is. In the moment, you wonder how a brain could mistake itself for anything other than itself, but the rest of Swan Song demonstrates how that might be the case.
This is a melancholy film from start to finish, one that recalls the emotional headspace of Denis Villeneuve’s Arrival. It’s easy to misstep into treacle when trying to produce this sort of tone. Cleary never does, and that can be attributed largely to the masterful technique of one of today’s best actors. If two Oscars didn’t confirm Ali’s genius in the acting sphere, Swan Song will. Cameron knows he is choosing between bad alternatives – either he’s opting to go through a terminal illness without any loved ones at his side, or he’s subjecting them to the present and future misery of bearing witness to it. Then he’s also face to face with a man who looks just like him – who is him – who will be effectively enjoying the fruits of the life Cameron has built. It’s a tricky but necessary part of the process that the clone has an initial awareness of what is happening to him, in order to master the role he’s playing, before his short-term memory is wiped and he simply “becomes” Cameron.
There are the makings of a psychological thriller embedded within Swan Song, but to the film’s distinct benefit, they are touched on without becoming a distraction. That’s not the type of film this is. This is a film about difficult decisions and impossible scenarios – impossible not because they couldn’t happen, though as far as we know they could not, but impossible because they ask things of us that we could never imagine ourselves being able to do. Asking ourselves what we would do in this situation is one of the chief pleasures of this emotional journey.
It’s not a fleet journey. Swan Song is deliberately paced and notably lacking in the things we might expect in this scenario, such as the action set pieces that often justify the financing of this sort of sci-fi vision. Again, that’s not the sort of film this is. It’s the sort of film that emphasises the human connection, and that isn’t limited to Cameron and his family. Another acting standout is the eternally valuable Awkwafina, who plays the previous guinea pig for this technology. She is further along her path toward the inevitable, and she gives Cameron a preview of what he might expect on his own journey, including crippling envy of the clone, living her life with blissful unawareness. As Awkwafina can always do, she also injects some gallows humour, maybe the indication Cameron needs to convince himself he can go through with it after all.
It’s appropriate that Swan Song is an AppleTV+ original, as there’s a distinctly Steve Jobsian aesthetic to the design of this future world, with its white whites and clean lines. If Jobs figured out how to deliver personal technology in an attractive package with an intuitive interface, Swan Song is an equally effective modern delivery system for the old-fashioned weepie. That comment is not intended to undercut the movie. It’s intended to give you some notion of where this film might take you, and what a satisfied, if slightly spent, end user you will be.
Swan Song is currently streaming on AppleTV+.