Swan Song review: A sci-fi drama that doesn’t seem all that interested in what our future holds

Writer-director Benjamin Cleary, in his feature debut after winning the Oscar for his live-action short ‘Stutterer’ in 2016, carves out several shortcuts for himself

Clarisse Loughrey
Friday 17 December 2021 09:10
Swan Song official trailer

Dir: Benjamin Cleary. Starring: Mahershala Ali, Naomie Harris, Awkwafina, Glenn Close. 15, 112 minutes.

“Screw the ethics!” Naomie Harris’s Poppy declares, midway through Apple TV+’s new sci-fi drama, Swan Song. She’s mid-discussion with her twin brother Andre (Nyasha Hatendi), as they react to the announcement of a new technology that could create an exact clone of an individual – down to the molecule – and simply replace them when they die. No one will have to fear anymore that their time on Earth will be cruelly cut short, even if their consciousness has to be split between two, different physical bodies. Initially, Poppy objects to the idea that any clone could be truly indistinguishable from the real thing. There would have to be some, immaterial giveaway. But if it meant that she wouldn’t have been robbed of a mother? Well, then, who cares if it’s immoral?

The scene is actually a memory played out in the head of her husband, Cameron (Mahershala Ali), who knows he’s dying and has decided to take Dr Jo Scott (Glenn Close) up on her offer of having a genetic duplicate take his place. How convenient. The switch between Cameron and second Cameron, called Jack for convenience (and also played by Ali), will only be convincing if no one in his life knows what happened. Jack will be given all of Cameron’s memories, conscious and subconscious, and then have his memory of the procedure wiped. And so Poppy can’t know that her husband is on death’s door. She can’t even know that he’s made his momentous decision on her behalf. You’d think that would be some tricky moral territory for a generally kind, unselfish man like Cameron – but because’s she’d already hypothetically consented in the past, he can at least imagine in his head that she almost certainly would have said yes.

Writer-director Benjamin Cleary, in his feature debut after winning the Oscar for his live-action short Stutterer in 2016, carves out several shortcuts for himself over the course of Swan Song. He ducks and dives away from the most obvious questions at hand: has Dr Scott invented immortality? Do these clones have any sense of free will? Would they want to return to a life that technically was never theirs? Would two identical people live out the same life or is there room for error? There’s a perfect bouncing board for these ideas already present in the film – Awkwafina’s Kate, a patient who has already made the switch, and is now living out her last days in Dr Scott’s woodland retreat. But Kate seems already resigned to the way of things. She doesn’t question it too much.

Swan Song doesn’t seem all that interested in what our future holds. It limits itself to things we understand all too well in our own point in time – that marriages are hard, and people who love each other deeply can still drift apart. Cameron hasn’t just been given the opportunity to keep hold of what he had before, but to be given a fresh new start. He just won’t be there to see the consequences. Ali and Harris, reuniting after 2016’s Moonlight, are such accomplished performers that the act of falling and being in love is a breeze. Cleary captures these moments with the sun-dappled but fractured intimacy that’s become closely associated with the depiction of memory on film. There is a purity to their emotions, helped by the film’s clean, minimalist aesthetics. Here is a world of AirPods, driverless cars, and smart contact lenses – things that already exist or could plausibly exist, pushed into the mainstream.

Poppy (Naomie Harris) can’t know that her husband (Mahershala Ali) is on death’s door

The film’s most interesting onscreen partnership is Ali and, well, Ali. He essentially delivers the same performance twice, but with variations so minute that you’re left to wonder whether you simply imagined them. They don’t talk between each other all that much, but when they do, the idea of having every single one of your own thoughts externalised is a little terrifying, like the most confrontational therapy session ever conducted. If only Cleary had steered further down that dark and twisty road, instead of looking for more simple comforts.

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