Far too many science fiction films trade emotion and empathy for explosive spectacle. Even in the sci-fi clone subgenre, films like The 6th Day, Gemini Man, and Alien: Resurrection all look at replication as an antagonistic process that needs to be defeated with sheer force. However, Swan Song demonstrates that cloning is far more nuanced and emotionally complex than commonly depicted in popular media.
If you were on the brink of death, but had a chance to save your loved ones from grieving, would you take it? That is the central question that terminally ill family man and artist, Cameron Turner (Mahershala Ali) grapples with when he is given the opportunity to be replaced by an identical copy through the regeneration process. His counterpart, named Jack (also Ali), is alike is every way, from his memory database to the smallest of micro-expressions. Does Cameron allow Jack to replace him or does the fear and selfish urges ingrained into our DNA win out?
Swan Song is a low-fi, back to basics approach that does as much to rehabilitate the clone subgenre as Spike Jonze’s Her did to revitalize AI in film. Writer/director Benjamin Cleary uses technology as a gateway to exploring our own humanity and how far we’ll go to protect those closest to us. Specifically, having Cameron relive past memories in order to properly configure Jack allows Cleary to use technology to slyly sneak in expository information and give the audiences ample opportunity to connect with the protagonist. These fragmented memory sequences (especially the ‘Moon River’ one) are reminiscent of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind but directed by Terrence Malick.
However Cleary’s stripped-back style wouldn’t work without Mahershala Ali’s remarkably restrained performance. No pair of eyes have done as much acting this year as Ali’s, which are filled with a lifetime of passion and quiet anguish that pierce the audiences’ hearts. Cameron’s silent stewing for the majority of the film makes Ali’s few scenes of emotional outbursts feel like sucker punches to the soul.
Swan Song‘s concept of a man in control of his own destiny being reduced to a spectator of it pushes the boundaries of the thematic material the clone subgenre can cover. Clones can act, not only as antagonists, but as mirrors to reflect a protagonist’s greatest fears and innermost thoughts. It’s this recontextualization of an classic sci-fi trope told in a wistful tone that ensures Swan Song, Ali’s first lead performance and Cleary’s directorial debut, will not be forgotten.
The Silver Lining
Even in her limited screen time, Awkwafina delivers her most subdued and nuanced performance since Lulu Wang’s The Farewell. Awkwafina’s Kate, another terminally ill patient who is undergoing the cloning process, could have solely been an expository presence in Swan Song, but the actress brings a considerable amount of heart to the character in her interactions with Cameron. Her few good-natured jokes lends the film a brief levity that breaks up the tragic nature of the narrative.
Swan Song releases on Apple TV+ and in select theaters this Friday, December 17th.