Death is the natural order of things, but what if you could prevent your families and friends from feeling sadness and grief due to your death. Would you take that opportunity? If you’ve ever lost someone, you may identify with the moral struggle at the heart of writer/director Benjamin Cleary’s Apple TV+ sci-fi drama Swan Song starring two-time Oscar winner Mahershala Ali and Oscar nominee Naomie Harris. This human and grounded script includes subtle sci-fi touches that aren’t distracting and enhance a strong story that does all the heavy lifting, thus taking the responsibility off of the talent so they can focus on delivering empathetic and compelling performances.
Cameron (Mahershala Ali) is dying and doesn’t have much longer to live. Since his wife Poppy (Naomie Harris) and child don’t know about 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 he waits to die. Dr. Scott’s science is to create a replica of the patient, equipping them with memories of the original and all the bodily identifiers and none of the diseases.
Once the procedure is done, Jax, Cameron’s clone, comes to life as a separate living, breathing entity. Cameron isn’t sure he’s ready to relinquish the responsibilities of his family to a clone, so he has to make a decision: send Jax out into the world as the new Cameron or risk going back home where his family might see him suffer. Whatever he decides, he must do it quickly and be satisfied with possibly taking his secret to the grave.
Swan Song is about Cameron going through the five stages of grief (denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance) of losing himself to a new version that separates him from a world he’s cultivated for himself. First, he’s in denial because Poppy admits he’s gone silent and refuses to even talk to his wife about his sickness. Then once Cameron sees Jack succeeding in his place, he becomes angry. The character then begins bargaining with his clone little by little by watching the way it engages with his family, but this brings about a wave of depression. He wants and needs physical closure and is worried that won’t happen, but when it comes time to accept his fate, you wonder if he’s happy with how things turned out.
There has been a surge of Lo-Fi sci-fi cinema. The futuristic setting is not central to the story, doesn’t serve as a distraction, and is grounded enough to be relatable to an audience. There is nothing sinister about Swan Song. Everyone is this film is trying to make the world a better place, and it’s good to see that on screen.
There is also a warm hue that shrouds Masanobu Takayanagi’s cinematography. The colors shift between a sunrise or sunset glow that feels heavenly almost. This makes sense for a clone birthing facility that also acts as a hospice wait for death. It’s hard to tell if this was intentional or accidental, but it works in either capacity. Most importantly, this framing works to highlight the electric performance by Mahershala Ali.
Ali emotes passion and empathy that leaps off the screen into your soul. He is an actor whose memorable performances leave an impact that lasts long after the film is over. It’s why the actor has two Academy Awards and is considered one of the best actors working in Hollywood today. In Swan Song, he has terrific chemistry with himself, but that’s assisted by Cleary’s direction. The actor can relax and just act because they are standing on a solid narrative foundation.
Would cloning make death easier? What would you do if you knew your family would be okay after you’re gone? The viewers will automatically put themselves in Cameron’s shoes and identify with his internal struggle, and everybody will have a different response and solution to what he’s going through. This is what makes Swan Song such a powerfully 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?