CAST: Mahershala Ali, Naomie Harris, Awkwafina, Glenn Close, Adam Beach, Lee Shorten, Dax Rey, Nyasha Hatendi, JayR Tinaco, Luke Camilleri, Jessica Hayles, Christine Laliberté, Shema Cayden, Mikayla Lagman
RUNNING TIME: 116 mins
BASICALLY…: A terminally-ill family man (Ali) is presented with a radical solution to his longevity…
NOW FOR THE REVIEW…
Although the vibes seem awfully familiar going in, Swan Song isn’t simply another Ex Machina – though, given how it too involves someone travelling to a remote location to observe a major scientific experiment, the immediate comparisons are understandable. However, instead of going the expected psychological thriller route, writer-director Benjamin Cleary’s feature debut opts for its sci-fi overtones to play as much more of an emotional and dramatic viewing experience, sometimes a bit too much so, but is nonetheless well-played enough to leave a good lump in the throat.
In the film, double Oscar-winner Mahershala Ali plays Cameron – in what is, rather surprisingly, the actor’s first proper lead role – a graphic designer who is happily married to a woman named Poppy (Naomie Harris) and a loving father to their young son Cody (Dax Rey). However, unbeknownst to his family, Cameron has been diagnosed with a terminal illness, and is determined to not let them go through the grieving process – this leads him to Dr. Scott (Glenn Close), a scientist who brings Cameron to a remote facility where he is presented with an identical clone of himself, initially named Jack (and also played by Ali). The idea is that Jack will be transplanted with all of Cameron’s memories, and then go back to his family to live a long, healthy life with them, while the real Cameron spends the remainder of his days at the facility.
In a more standard sci-fi narrative, this would be the part where the scientific creation suddenly goes haywire and becomes a threat to the family, causing the real Cameron to come back in and save the day – but, mercifully, this is not that kind of movie. Instead, Swan Song takes a much more sombre look at life, love and acceptance through the gaze of a mildly plausible near-future, where technology has evolved enough to include self-driving cars, weird animated voice messages, and the ability to create biologically perfect clones of people that have zero chance of going all Blade Runner on the system. Writer-director Benjamin Cleary presents a vision of the future that is less concerned with the social commentary of humanity and its growing relationship with science and technology, but more on the very human impact that such inventions can have on someone forced to make an impossible choice. Think less Black Mirror, and more Her with a dash of A.I. Artificial Intelligence, and you should have more of an idea of what this movie is aiming for.
It’s a bold move on the part of Cleary to focus his movie on the human drama unfolding within this sci-fi context, instead of focusing on the depressing pitfalls that such a procedure can bring. The conflict comes not from the clone himself, but rather the original specimen: how can someone like him, who has lived a proper life with his family up to this point, stand by while someone who looks and sounds exactly like him is preparing to completely take over his life? More importantly, does he have it within him to let the procedure unfold as planned, or risk everything and return to die surrounded by those he loves the most? It’s a neat moral dilemma that Cleary brings to the table, and the double performances by Mahershala Ali are incredibly empathetic as they allow you to understand things from both their perspectives; even though they share the same DNA and memories, Cameron and Jack still have radically different approaches to the situation that you see being played out in their face-to-face scenes.
It is an acting showcase for Ali, who also produces, and while he does some great work in this movie, other performers are unfortunately given less material to work with; Naomie Harris is ultimately left in a typical “loving wife” role, as is Glenn Close as the doting scientist in charge of everything, while Awkwafina is woefully underused as a fellow dying woman who has also been cloned for the sake of her own family. There are also times in the movie when the emotion is laid on a little too thick, with the final act of the movie paying particular focus on one too many crying scenes (albeit some very well-acted ones), enough to ignite a possible drinking game for however many times a tear falls down Mahershala Ali or Naomie Harris’s face.
As a formidable, if imperfect, slice of human sci-fi, Swan Song is a wholly decent attempt that is saved by its strong themes and emotional performances, which are enough to leave you glad that you saw it at least once. It might not be the movie you think it is going in to it, and that’s a good thing: for once, it’s nice to have a sci-fi drama like this where the drama doesn’t entirely come from the sci-fi element, and instead aiming towards something with a much more human heart.
SO, TO SUM UP…
Swan Song is a formidable sci-fi drama that boasts some thought-provoking themes and some heavily emotional performances from the likes of Mahershala Ali (in a dual role) and Naomie Harris, though sometimes the heavier moments are laid on thicker than they need to be, while other performers aren’t given nearly as much to do as they probably should be.