Loud spectacle is traded in for morbid melancholia in Oscar-winning director Benjamin Cleary’s new science-fiction film Swan Song, out on Apple TV+. Starring two-time Oscar-winner Mahershala Ali as twice the number of people he usually plays in films, Swan Song is a slow-burn meditation on death, and an assured example of the kind of inward-gazing, mid-scale sci-fi that is getting rarer by the year.
The whole thing has the vibe of Taylor Swift’s Folklore documentary, if it were shot inside an Apple store. Swan Song marries melodrama with cutting-edge ideas rooted in emotion, and blends a cottagecore aesthetic with Hollywood slickness.
After an Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind-inspired meet cute aboard a train, the movie jumps ahead in time by several years, when illustrator Cameron discovers that he is terminally ill, but decides against telling his wife, Poppy. He hears of an experimental new procedure through which dying men and women can hire a company to create clones that will take their place when they die, leaving their families none the wiser.
Crucially, though, none of the concepts that Cleary presents in the film are far-fetched; they are, instead, an extension of tech that already exists. We think artificial intelligence and microbotics are near-fantastical notions, but really, they’re just at a nascent stage right now. This is ideal for sci-fi storytelling, because this way, you don’t waste time trying to convince the audience to buy what what you’re selling. Proof-of-concept already exists.
Swan Song sounds similar to the Black Mirror episode Be Right Back only because it is. And like Be Right Back, Swan Song also spends an appropriate amount of time pondering over the ethics of cloning. But crucially, it flips the perspective. While Be Right Back was an exploration of grief told from the point of view of a woman who loses her partner in a car crash, in Swan Song, it is Ali’s Cameron who pre-empts his wife’s anguish and decides to clone himself. Matters are complicated only because he doesn’t consult Poppy about his dicey decision.
We know how, in the hands of a less confident director, moral quandaries such as this can become inadvertently problematic on screen. We’ve seen the Chris Pratt-Jennifer Lawrence movie Passengers.
Almost the entirety of Swan Song’s second act is devoted to Cameron second guessing his decision. When he comes face-to-face with his clone—the man who will soon take his place—he understandably freaks out. Over conversations with, well, himself, Cam begins to wonder if the new him is a better person than he ever was. This is a theme that was (partially) addressed previously in Another Earth, a true masterpiece of the genre that unfortunately never got its due.
Swan Song is never as good, but thanks to Ali’s soulful dual performance, stellar production design, and Masanobo Takayanagi’s glossy cinematography, it is a film that could (fittingly) find its audience long after its release window.
Swan Song director – Benjamin Cleary
Swan Song cast – Mahershala Ali, Naomie Harris, Glenn Close, Awkwafina
Swan Song rating – 3 stars