“Swan Song”, which was released on Apple+ two days ago, is a somber SF chamber drama revolving around one complex human matter of life and death. As calmly and earnestly following its ordinary hero’s emotional struggle involved with making an exceptional but difficult choice, the movie lets us muse more on life and humanity, and then it eventually arrives at the thoughtful and poignant conclusion which will linger on your mind for a while.
At the beginning, the movie, which is set in the near-future world, gradually establishes its hero’s desperate circumstance. Cameron Turner (Mahershala Ali) is a successful designer who has lived a fairly good life with his wife Poppy (Naomie Harris) and their little son, but there is something important he has not revealed to them for a while. He has actually been terminally ill, and he cannot possibly confide this to his wife because, due to one hurtful past experience, he knows too well how much she can be devastated by personal loss. Besides, she has already been pregnant for several months, and that makes Cameron more conflicted about hiding the fact from her.
However, he also has an option which will not have his wife and son suffer from his impending death. Under the cool supervision of Dr. Scott (Glenn Close), Cameron has already participated in her clandestine science project, and we get to know about what Dr. Scott and her few staff members are going to do at their state-of-the-art facility located in some remote spot. Using Cameron’s DNA, they already made a clone which not only looks exactly like him but also will have all the memories belonging to his mind, and all Cameron will have to do at present is agreeing to do a 7-day preparation period along with his clone, who is temporarily called Jack for convenience.
As watching his clone in dormant state, Cameron is naturally unnerved, but then he is reminded again of his grim reality, and the movie patiently depicts how Dr. Scott and her assistants handle the first step of the preparation process between Cameron and Jack. Thanks to their special equipment, everything in Cameron’s mind is swiftly transferred to Jack’s head (Please don’t ask me about how that is actually possible), and Jack soon wakes up for the first time with some understandable bafflement.
Cameron’s following formal encounter with Jack is quite awkward to say the least, but Cameron soon gets a bit more accustomed to his doppelgänger, and, as interacting with Jack and Dr. Scott, he often finds himself reflecting more on all those memories of his wife and son. As reminded again of how much he cares about them, he cannot help but feel more uncomfortable about how he is soon going to be replaced by Jack, and that leads to more tension between him and Jack, who also cares a lot about Cameron’s wife and kid because, well, he has the exact same feelings and thoughts based on Cameron’s memories.
Instead of overplaying the conflict between Cameron and Jack, the screenplay by director/writer Benjamin Cleary steadily maintains its calm and meditative attitude as before, and it also shows some humor mainly via Cameron’s friendship with a woman who has already been replaced by her clone. Just like Cameron, she will die sooner or later due to some terminal illness, and she has no bad feeling about how her clone has been doing and living pretty well outside, but she also cannot help but feel a bit bitter about how she has been living her remaining days inside the facility as waiting for her eventual death.
The mood becomes a bit more tense later as Cameron becomes more desperate with his increasingly unstable medical condition, but Cleary tactfully handles his story and characters with some unexpected moments of empathy and understanding. I will not go into details, but I can tell you at least that Jack comes to function as an active figure of the story just like his counterpart, and I was particularly touched by his simple act of decency around the end of the story.
Everything in the film depends a lot on the dual performance by Mahershala Ali, a charismatic actor who has advanced a lot during last several years as giving us several stellar performances including that unforgettable Oscar-winning supporting turn in “Moonlight” (2016). As he deftly handles his two roles during several key scenes in the film via subtle touches and nuances, we become more emotionally engaged in his two characters’ overlapped emotional journey, and we accordingly come to care more about its eventual outcome.
Around Ali, several other notable cast members in the film dutifully fill their respective parts as required. While Glenn Close imbues her rather thankless character with detached but gentle authority, Naomie Harris, who incidentally appeared along with Ali in “Moonlight”, clicks well with Ali during several warm and intimate scenes between them, and Awkwafina, who can be both funny and touching as shown from “The Farewell” (2019), is also solid as another crucial supporting character in the story.
In conclusion, “Swan Song” is a small but interesting film which explores its science fiction ideas as much as intended, and Cleary and his crew members including cinematographer Masanobu Takayanagi did a competent job of filling the screen with enough mood and details to hold our attention. Although it requires some patience from you due to its rather slow narrative pacing, the movie is still worthwhile to watch thanks to its several strong points including Ali’s commendable performance, and you may find yourself reflect a bit on your life and existence after watching it.