Written by Patrick Hao
There’s been a slew of ultra-sleek futuristic sci-fi dealing with the moral, philosophical conundrums of technology and the human spirit. Films like Marjorie Prime (who has thought of that film since its release) and the recently released and ridiculously titled Needle in a Timestack. Benjamin Cleary’s Swan Song is another addition to the handsomely made, slow, prodding, and meditative sci-fi dramas. However, like the aforementioned films and so many others like it, they’re snooze fests with absent deep exploration and interrogation of the topics at hand.
The premise of Swan Song is an age-old one. What would you do to shield your loved ones from the grief of your imminent death? Cameron (Mahershala Ali) agrees to be a part of a secret cloning program after learning of his terminal illness. His wife, Poppy (Naomi Harris) is pregnant, and they already have a young son (Dax Rey). The program ran by Dr. Scott (Glenn Close) explains to Cameron that an exact replica clone will be created of him with all of his memories while he lives out his dying days. Dr. Scott also introduces Cameron to Kate (a stripped-down Awkwafina), another patient at the clinic who has already gone through the process. The film is interspersed with memories from Cameron showing the life he is going to lose while also proving why Naomie Harris is one of our most radiant actresses.
The literalism of Swan Song makes the entire film a slog to get through. Obviously, this dilemma of self-sacrifice and questions of humanity is a tear-jerking notion. But the blunt force in which the film states how Cameron is feeling at every moment is a real credit to Ali’s performance in the way he is able to infuse soulfulness to this surface-level film. The way every character openly states their emotions, you would not be faulted for thinking they’re mere moments away from breaking out with an impassioned soliloquy with a spotlight on center stage.
Cleary’s direction is competent but staid. His compositions are crisply clean in a way that is fitting for an Apple+ original. Put a slow cover of a hit 80’s song over some of the montages, and the film would fit perfectly as one of those Google Year-End ads.
Many other reviewers have positively likened Swan Song to the much better Michel Gondry film Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. However, Charlie Kaufmann’s script has never been so literal. Rather, he externalizes and manifests emotions and feelings to create his version of reality. Cleary’s film engenders the feeling of two men rhapsodizing BIG philosophical questions at a coffee shop in the West Village – an unpleasant feeling indeed.
There is a more thoughtful film here, one that would use the medium of cinema to explore the complex emotional quandaries that Swan Song purports to be about. Alas, at least we have Mahershala Ali’s first lead performance.
Swan Song Trailer
Swan Song is streaming on AppleTV+.
You can follow Patrick and his passion for film on Letterboxd and Twitter.