In the near future, Cameron Turner (Mahershala Ali) is a successful commercial artist suffering from a terminal illness. He is living his best life – he met his wife Poppy (Naomie Harris) following an amusing chocolate-related confusion during a routine train commute – and the pair are now married with a young son. Poppy is pregnant again. The family has already been touched by tragedy following the death of Poppy’s devoted younger brother and he can’t bear the thought of visiting further grief upon his loved ones. An option presents itself which might avoid the whole issue; he signs up reluctantly for a revolutionary new medical procedure whereby he can be replaced by an identical clone programmed with all his thoughts, memories, dreams, fears and ambitions, a being that will quickly forget his own artificial origins and literally become the man he was created from. Cameron will live on and his family need never know that he has died.
If the plot of Benjamin Cleary’s striking movie rings a bell then it’s likely you might well have seen the episode of last year’s Amazon Prime series Solos in which Anthony Mackie delivered a bravura performance as a dying man coming to terms with being replaced by an identical robot replacement. The comparison is unfortunate, but Swan Song takes a deeper dive into the idea and, at nearly two hours, it takes its time to really get under the skin of a man tasked with making an almost impossible decision – a decision that will resonate with his entire family even though they will never know nor have any say in it. It’s a bold, stark film that will also remind many of Ex_Machina as Cameron travels to a secret laboratory complex in the countryside to undergo the cloning procedure under the supervision of the sympathetic Dr Scott (Glenn Close). But unlike Ex Machina, Swan Song puts its humanity front and centre; its sci-fi trappings – driverless cars, hi-tech video call facilities, etc - are discrete and almost throwaway fine detail. This is a cleverly-structured story – there are several flashbacks that flesh out Cameron’s life following his first meeting with Poppy - that focuses on Cameron’s predicament and Ali is superb at wringing out every conflicted emotion as he tries to back out of the procedure even as he knows that he can’t bear the thought of tearing his family apart by dying. He knows that Poppy is against the idea of replacing a living organism with a copy (it’s discussed in an early flashback) and the moral issues of him making his decision without consulting with his wife aren’t really addressed at any length, which many might uncomfortable. Swan Song is very much Cameron’s story, his dilemma, his choice and there are some moments that are genuinely heart-breaking as he faces his own mortality and the terrible realisation that he will never see his loved ones again.
Swan Song is a powerful, evocative story told in a measured, almost matter-of-fact fashion; it has a certain clinical, antiseptic detachment and some might even find that it descends into mawkishness in places. However, Ali is outstanding, Naomie Harris steps out of the shadow of Bond and brings light and nuance to the character of Poppy and Awkwafina impresses as an earlier patient of the procedure edging towards death even as her blissfully-unaware duplicate is living the life she thinks she has always lived. Swan Song is an engrossing and rather chilling story of the choices we sometimes have to make for the greater good of others and how sometimes we have to make those choices without anyone ever knowing we’ve made them. A classy start to a new year of films.
Swan Song is available now on Apple TV+