Mahershala Ali reaffirms his status as America’s best working actor in Benjamin Cleary’s quietly moving sci-fi drama about a dying man considering replacement by a clone.
When someone tells you they never lie to their romantic partner, don’t believe them. They may not tell real whoppers, like what they really did with the money that was supposed to go towards bills, but little white lies, and especially lies of omission, are fair game. Total honesty means having to hurt the people we love, and so we obfuscate, hide things, to protect their feelings. Benjamin Cleary’s Swan Song (not to be confused with the Todd Stephens film of the same name) tells the story of a husband and father who takes a lie of omission to eerie, heart-wrenching lengths.
Set in the near future, Swan Song stars Mahershala Ali as Cameron Turner, an artist who seems to have it all: a successful career, a nice house, a beautiful wife, Poppy (Naomie Harris), and a cute little son who adores him. He also has something in his brain that’s slowly but surely killing him, an unspecified disease that causes him to fall into seizures. With Poppy still emotionally fragile after the unexpected death of her twin brother, and his son simply too young to understand, Cameron is reluctant to tell them about his grim prognosis.
Thanks to a marvelous innovation spearheaded by one Dr. Scott (Glenn Close), one that will be “as common as a heart transplant in a few years,” he might not have to. Dr. Scott has perfected cloning technology, creating exact replicas of dying people, minus whatever it is that’s afflicting them. These clones are no blank slates either – they’re uploaded with the memories and life experiences of the humans they’re replacing, designed to simply enter their world undetected even by those who know them best. Secure in the knowledge that their loved ones won’t have to suffer from their loss, the replaced humans live their remaining days at Dr. Scott’s laboratory/hospice in peace.
Cameron is initially on board with the process, particularly after spending time with Kate (Awkwafina), a former real estate agent who’s already been successfully replaced by her clone. He begins to second-guess things only after he’s forced to spend time with his clone, temporarily named Jack, so that he can confirm that Jack is a flawless duplicate of himself. His discomfort is palpable when Jack goes to live with Cameron’s family, particularly when Jack begins cutting the live camera feed that allows Cameron to watch him interact with Poppy and their son.
But it’s not the set-up to a reveal that Jack is intent on doing Cameron’s family harm. It’s simply part of the process, the first step in Jack eventually fully becoming Cameron and forgetting that he’s a clone. He’s removing Cameron’s connections to the world, not giving him a chance to say goodbye. Cameron simply forgets, for a moment anyway, that that’s what he wanted in the first place.
In a remarkable year for films, it’s likely that Swan Song will end up lost in the shuffle (it also doesn’t help that people aren’t likely in the mood for a melancholy story about death at Christmastime). That’s unfortunate, because what could have easily been mawkish and emotionally manipulative is instead low-key and insightful. Cameron’s reasons for not wanting to tell Poppy about his illness are well-meaning but undeniably selfish – he simply cannot bring himself to discuss the subject of death with her, as illustrated by the schism that develops between them after Poppy’s brother dies. In the end, it turns out to be just as hard to watch Jack take over his life, getting every aspect of himself correct, the “real” Cameron already forgotten, and yet not exactly. He’s not missed by his family, because they don’t know he’s gone.
It also helps that Mahershala Ali, our current greatest living actor, brings his usual warmth and strength to the role of Cameron, incredibly his first lead role in a feature film. His best moments are when he’s up against himself, forced to essentially train his replacement in life and ensure that he’s up to the task without anyone finding out. Cameron can’t lie to Jack, because Jack knows literally everything about him, from birth up to that very moment. He is Cameron, and Cameron is becoming a ghost.
The futuristic setting in Swan Song is subtle and undistracting. Clothes and furniture look mostly the same, but the cars are a little sleeker, and the technology is designed to keep us more isolated than we already are now. And then, of course, there’s Dr. Scott’s marvelous invention, a compassionate solution for an eternal problem: that none of us are prepared to talk about death, and none of us are ready to let the ones we love go.
Swan Song premieres in limited theatrical release and on Apple TV+ December 17th.