Swan Song movie review: Mahershala Ali's Apple TV offering is sombre, slow-burning, even ponderous in parts

Some scenes are filled with vast stretches of morose silence. What makes it work are the performances, led by a winsome double role by Mahershala Ali.

Aditya Mani Jha December 17, 2021 08:00:38 IST

3/5

A significant cross-section of science fiction across media is devoted to the idea of working around mortality, extending one’s life, or having a do-over of sorts. Think about the number of recent projects that involved some form of eternal recurrence: Natasha Lyonne’s Russian Doll, the Andy Samberg-starrer Palm Springs et al. The Kazuo Ishiguro novel Never Let Me Go, the recent Amazon Prime series Upload, the Netflix series Altered Carbon — these are just some examples where the narrative explores the ethical dilemmas around cloning, or something pretty close to cloning. At each story’s heart lies a bold but, as we learn, ultimately misguided attempt to subvert the natural order of life and death, which leads to severe emotional problems among the protagonists.

Benjamin Cleary’s impressive feature film debut Swan Song lays down a similar premise: in the near future, Cameron (Mahershala Ali) is a terminally ill artist and graphic designer who enlists a covert hospice and research facility led by Dr Scott (Glenn Close). The modus operandi for Dr Scott’s little operation is ingenious: they “molecularly regenerate” a terminally ill person, complete with their memories (even subconscious or repressed ones) and mannerisms. The clone meets the original but has the memory of this meeting erased. And one night, just like that, the clone takes over the original’s life, while the latter lives out their days at the hospice facility, which is located in some appropriately bleak and beautiful wilderness (the film was shot in an around Vancouver).

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Oh, and you can even watch the clone “becoming” you, slipping into your family’s lives, thanks to cameras attached to the clone’s eyes. Wearable tech is, in general, a big deal in Cleary’s vision of the near future: most prominently, some kind of air pods that everybody wears and the aforementioned eyeball-fit, voice-operated OS. Cleary does a fine job of using these small but crucial details — the world-building seems to be organic and never relies too heavily on exposition.

Swan Song movie review Mahershala Alis Apple TV offering is sombre slowburning even ponderous in parts

The move is supposed to be “kinder” on your family because they don’t know the difference. They don’t know that you have been replaced by a clone. But, as Cameron discovers after he agrees to the procedure, it isn’t easy to keep one’s peace as you watch your doppelganger interact with your family. “Jack” (Cameron’s clone, which was called that in-development by Dr Scott) integrates himself into the lives of Scott’s wife Poppy (Naomie Harris) and son  Soon, Cameron begins to have a string of second thoughts that reflect the various stages of dealing with Jack’s existence — denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance.

Swan Song is a sombre, slow-burning, even ponderous film in parts. Some scenes are filled with vast stretches of morose silence. What makes it work are the performances, led by a winsome double role by Mahershala Ali.

As Cameron, he is a bit of a sad sap, enlivened only when he’s with Poppy or at his sketchbook (which, as we learn, he abandoned after his brother-in-law Andre’s death in a road accident). Like Jack, he’s even more impressive, a riposte to the “evil twin” stereotype in science fiction narratives.

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The rest of the cast also hold up their end; Glenn Close is reliably brilliant as the icy but strategically compassionate Dr Scott. Awkwafina plays against type as the morose, gallows-humor-dispensing Kate, a woman who Cameron meets at the hospice, someone who has undergone the procedure and is similarly depressed at the sight of their clone replacing them. Naomie Harris is stuck in a severely one-note character but does well. Poppy feels both underwritten and over-written, strangely: perhaps it’s because one of the few details about her life presented to us is that she teaches kids with learning disabilities….with music therapy. I mean, I get that we are supposed to feel Cameron’s pain at losing her, but I think this can be achieved without making the character downright beatific.

I have enjoyed several lo-fi science fiction movies of late — the low-budget sci-fi story feels, in the wake of the dominance of IP-led films, like a statement of artistic protest. Think The Vast of Night or Moon or the older Shane Carruth classic Upstream Color. They are all very different from each other and none of them follow Hollywood templates (except when they do so in conversation with them). Swan Song joins the ranks of these movies with a tearjerker for the ages.

Rating: 3/5

The film is streaming on Apple TV+.

Aditya Mani Jha is a Delhi-based independent writer and journalist, currently working on a book of essays on Indian comics and graphic novels.

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