Swan Song is sci-fi at its most stripped down and stirring, with the masterful Mahershala Ali rooting the drama in grounded emotional realism.
It’s absurd to think that two-time Academy Award winner Mahershala Ali (Moonlight, Green Book) has yet to be featured in a leading role in a film. Even aside from his two Oscar winning performances, Ali has been a standout supporting star in plenty of other popular pictures for years, from The Curious Case of Benjamin Button to The Hunger Games: Mockingjay to Hidden Figures and more, but, for some reason, he’s still been unable to pick up a lead part. True Detective gave the actor his first opportunity to lead a TV show, and he does at least have the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s Blade lined up for the near future, but that film is nevertheless quite far away, with no release date set as of yet – and all of this is what makes Benjamin Cleary’s Swan Song so special. Even before taking anything else into consideration, the fact that this stands as the first lead film role of one of the greatest actors of his generation is something worth celebrating, and, as expected, Ali absolutely knocks it out of the park, elevating a simple sci-fi premise into something so passionately poignant, all thanks to his tremendously affecting acting.
Swan Song starts at the end – the end of graphic designer Cameron Turner’s (Ali) life, that is. Husband to his beloved Poppy (Naomie Harris, of Venom: Let There Be Carnage and No Time to Die) and father to a sweet young son named Hugo (Dax Rey), Turner finds that his brain is being taken over by a swiftly spreading disease, rendering him susceptible to random seizures and, eventually, death. In desperation, he turns to Arra Labs, where Dr. Jo Scott (Glenn Close, of Guardians of the Galaxy and Tarzan) offers him a second chance of sorts: the ability to clone and create a carbon copy of himself, with this “replicant” later receiving all of his conscious (and subconscious) memories as well. Therefore, after Cameron passes, Cameron 2.0 – or, “Jack,” as he comes to be known as in the interim – will live on in his place, with his family never knowing the difference. Cameron starts and stops the experiment multiple times, uncertain of whether or not this is the best path forward, but can his wife, who just barely survived being on the brink of delirium after her brother’s death, handle another loss? And with the announcement that Poppy is pregnant with a second child, how can Cameron allow it to grow up without a father?
The smartest thing about writer-director Benjamin Cleary’s script is how it doesn’t overcomplicate this conflict. There’s no third act twist where Swan Song suddenly becomes some anonymous sci-fi action thriller and Close’s Dr. Scott has some hidden “sinister intentions” for her experiment. This isn’t that movie, and it’s all the better for it. Instead, Cleary wisely keeps the focus on the deeply felt drama at the center of Cameron’s conundrum – to clone, or not to clone? – and analyzes every answer, both positive and negative, to this question. Is it wrong to deceive his wife and son into thinking the clone that’ll take his place is really him, even though he’s doing so to save them from further sorrows and assure that his unborn child has two parents to look after it? And can Cameron cope with the fact that another man will be living out his life, even if that other man is technically “him”? All of these emotions are expertly – and empathetically – explored here, adventuring into the “gray” area of this moral dilemma and reserving all judgment to instead allow for a pragmatic parsing of the experiment’s possible pitfalls.
Powering the film’s thematic ponderings is the masterful Mahershala Ali, giving us not one but two powerhouse performances in a single film, balancing the agonizing arcs of both Cameron and Jack. Though Ali excels in impassioned exclamations as well, he can also illustrate the cost of Cameron carrying the weight of the world on his shoulders via a simple forlorn look on his face, proving his proficiency with both showiness and subtlety. Whether he’s wailing about the woes he faces as he comes to terms with a future without his family or playfully palling around with his loved ones, he’s always completely committed to the emotional aura of every set scene, never expressing anything other than credible – and convincing – authenticity.
As Jack, he’s equally exceptional, characterizing his understandable confusion at the environment around him with confounded candor and gifting him the space to plead his own perspective. Here is a being who never asked to be “born,” and yet, every time he prepares to fulfill his purpose, Cameron seems to get cold feet, causing him to live in a limbo where he feels wayward and lost. While he never finds faults with Cameron’s fears, he won’t stay silent either, and their tug-of-war for control of Cameron’s life is thrilling to behold – something Ali portrays perfectly.
At nearly two hours, it does start to feel like Swan Song has run out of story at certain points in the second half – particularly when certain concerns are rehashed time and time again – but Nathan Nugent’s (Room, Frank) expedient editing keeps the picture moving at a brisk pace, and he brings some engrossing energy to the proceedings in the stimulating scenes in which Cameron’s memories come rushing back to him as he “transfers” them to Jack, cross-cutting between all the beautiful – and all the bad – moments in his history.
Additionally, the stellar supporting cast always suffuses the film with feeling and fervor, with Harris leaving the largest impression, though Awkwafina (The Farewell, Raya and the Last Dragon) is sadly wasted in an extraneous part as another patient of Dr. Scott’s who sometimes converses with Cameron. Regardless, even in spite of a few structural stumbles here or there, when Swan Song comes to a close, it’s clear that it’s supremely successful at showing sci-fi at its most stripped down and stirring – a rousing look at life, love, and loss that resonates deeply, where the mighty Mahershala Ali reminds us once more why he’s already one of the all-time greats.
Swan Song had its World Premiere at the AFI Fest on November 12, 2021. The film will be released globally in theaters and on Apple TV+ on December 17.