Film Review – Swan Song
Swan Song (2021) – not to be confused with the Udo Kier-starring vehicle that came out earlier this year – is a methodical and moving sci-fi drama. Writer/director Benjamin Cleary makes his feature-length debut in this examination of love, loss, and identity. The best sci-fi films aren’t about flying cars or spaceships, but about the connections we make with one another. It takes a future society and contextualizes it within a present framework. Sci-fi is a mirror for us to examine ourselves – about the beauty and tragedy of life. Cleary understands this, and with his film has touched on something that aims right for the heart.
Mahershala Ali proves yet again that he is one of the finest actors working today. Through his facial expressions alone, he can translate fear, happiness, longing, and regret – often within the same scene. Cleary – along with cinematographer Masanobu Takayanagi – capitalizes on Ali’s skillset, routinely holding the frame in a closeup and letting the actor’s eyes do all the heavy lifting. Ali plays Cameron, an artist living in a not-too-distant future. While Cameron appears happy with his wife Poppy (Naomie Harris) and son Cory (Dax Rey), something terrible has happened. Cameron has been diagnosed with a terminal illness and does not have much time left to live.
Knowing that Poppy has already suffered tragedy in her past, Cameron tries to spare her pain by entering an experimental program. Led by Dr. Jo Scott (Glenn Close), Cameron has himself cloned. His double – nicknamed Jack (also played by Ali) – is a perfect DNA match except he is free of Cameron’s illness. Jack will replace Cameron and continue to live as him, with his family completely oblivious of the switch. But just as soon as Cameron signs up, he begins to have doubts. Is it right for his doppelganger to replace him? Should he just confess to his family and deal with his diagnosis together? Or is it better for them to live happily despite being deceived?
These are the burning questions at the center of Swan Song. A lesser movie would focus on the rivalry between Cameron and Jack, but Cleary and the rest of the production are much smarter than that. This is a more philosophical debate, about whether Cameron should accept his fate or push against the inevitable. The decision is not easy. The editing (Nathan Nugent) bounces back and forth in time, jumping between Cameron and Poppy’s relationship, the fun times they had with Poppy’s brother Andre (Nyasha Hatendi), and seeing Cory grow from a newborn into a kid. These are the moments Cameron would be giving away. Where Jack will continue making new memories Cameron will be left behind. To sooth this torment, he speaks with Kate (Awkwafina) a previous patient of Dr. Scott’s. Kate and Cameron act as a support group for each other.
The production design and art direction set thing in the future but with a grounded aesthetic. This is a place with self-driving cars and where a person can make a phone call with the flick of a finger. Apps and programs we normally see on a touchscreen are visualized as holograms floating in the air. Much of this is convincing, although the scene featuring video game characters duking it out in a person’s bedroom was not the least bit believable. Cameron’s home is created with a modern sensibility, as though he designed it to specifically have clean lines and odd angles. Dr. Scott’s compound rests in the middle of a wooded mountainside overlooking the water. Inside, the minimalist layout – lit with light browns and yellows – has a warm yet clinical feel. The most impressive thing about the tech is that it is not a distraction. While these bits are fun to marvel at, they do not take away from the human story.
Although Cleary does a very good job of setting the stakes and fleshing out both Cameron and Jack’s motivations, I had a lingering question about whether any of this was ethical. Yes, if Jack were to replace Cameron, it would save Poppy and Cory from further heartbreak, but is that really their decision to make? What makes life interesting – and thus worth living – is to go through the ups and downs of it all, including death. If Cameron’s family is deceived, are they living a real life? Shouldn’t Poppy be part of this decision as well? Is Cameron selfish for wanting to back out of the experiment, or is he selfish for not telling his family the truth? These are the questions that kept nagging in my mind, yet the film never fully addressed.
By the third act, Swan Song goes all out in pulling our heartstrings. It makes no effort in hiding the fact that it is trying to draw our sympathies, and yet by the end I was won over. This is mainly due Ali’s phenomenal performance. He is excellent throughout, but during the climax – when Cameron must face the consequences of his decisions – does his work take off. While the film overall is good, he is great. Just watch how he handles every moment until the credits start to roll, the tenderness he infuses into each bit of dialogue, and how graceful he is with each physical gesture. Mahershala Ali delivers a work so captivating that we are willing to follow him wherever he chooses to take it.