Death is the natural order of things, but what if you could prevent your family and friends from feeling sadness and grief over your death. Would you take that opportunity? If you’ve ever lost someone, you can identify with the moral battle in the heart of writer / director Benjamin Cleary’s Apple TV + sci-fi drama Swan song with double Oscar winner Mahershala Ali and Oscar nominee Naomie Harris. This human and grounded script contains subtle sci-fi features that are not distracting and enhance a strong story that does all the heavy lifting, thus taking responsibility from the talent so they can focus on delivering empathetic and compelling performances.
Cameron (Mahershala Ali) is dying and has little more to live for. Since his wife Poppy (Naomie Harris) and child do not know of his diagnosis, he chooses to shield them from the grief that awaits them in his death. His solution is to seek out Dr. Scott (Glen Close) and her cloning / hospice facility in hopes of replacing himself while waiting to die. Dr. Scott’s science is to create a copy of the patient, equipping them with memories of the original and all the bodily identifiers and none of the diseases.
When the procedure is complete, Jax, Cameron’s clone, comes to life as a separate living, breathing entity. Cameron is not sure he is ready to hand over his family’s responsibilities to a clone, so he has to make a decision: Send Jax out into the world as the new Cameron or risk taking home where his family may see him suffer. Whatever he decides on, he must do so quickly and be content with possibly taking his secret to the grave.
Swan song is about Cameron going through the five stages of grief (denial, anger, negotiation, depression, acceptance) by losing himself to a new version that sets him apart from a world he has cultivated for himself. First, he is in denial because Poppy admits he has been silent and refuses to talk to his wife about his illness at all. So when Cameron sees Jack succeed in his place, he gets angry. The character then begins to negotiate with his clone little by little by seeing how it engages with his family, but this causes a wave of depression. He wants and needs physical closure and is worried that it will not happen, but when it’s time to accept his fate, one wonders if he is happy with how things went.
There has been a wave of Lo-Fi sci-fi cinema. The futuristic setting is not central to the story, does not serve as a distraction and is grounded enough to be able to relate to an audience. There is nothing sinister about the Swan Song. Everyone is, this movie is trying to make the world a better place, and it’s good to see it on screen.
There is also a warm nuance that pays homage to Masanobu Takayanagi’s film. The colors alternate between a sunrise or a sunset that feels almost heavenly. This makes sense for a clone birth facility that also serves as a hospice event on death. It’s hard to say if this was intentional or random, but it works in both functions. Most importantly, this framing works to highlight Mahershala Ali’s electrical performance.
Ali feels passion and empathy leaping from the screen and into your soul. He is an actor whose memorable performance leaves an effect that lasts long after the film is over. That’s why the actor has two Oscars and is considered one of the best actors working in Hollywood today. In Swan Song, he has a great chemistry with himself, but it gets helped by Cleary’s instruction. The actor can relax and just act because they stand on a solid narrative basis.
Would cloning make death easier? What would you do if you knew your family would be okay once you’ve gone? Viewers will automatically put themselves in Cameron’s place and identify with his inner struggle, and everyone will have a different reaction and solution to what he is going through. That is what makes Swan Song such a moving story. Is that it creates a conversation about life, death and everything in between. So what would your swan song be? Protect those you love without their knowledge, or let them make their own decision?