Just before the end of the year, Apple TV+ has one more prestige item to push. New sci-fi movie Swan Song stars multiple Academy Award winner Mahershala Ali and multiple Academy Award nominee Glenn Close.
Swan Song, which premieres Friday on Apple TV+, is a number of things: an inspirational disease drama, a sleek sci-fi parable, a clone movie, and the feature debut of an Academy Award-winning short film director, Benjamin Cleary.
Arriving so soon after Tom Hanks’ ho-hum Finch, viewers could be forgiven for preparing for the worst. Thankfully, there’s no need.
Swan Song review
Famous graphic artist Cameron Turner is dying. Cameron (played by Mahershala Ali, who took home Oscars for Moonlight and Green Book) can’t or won’t tell his wife, Poppy (Naomie Harris), and their son, Cory (Dax Rey). The family just suffered a tragedy when Poppy’s brother Andre (Nyasha Hatendi) died suddenly, and Cameron is wary of having conversations with his family about preparations for death so soon again.
However, he has a thought that’s grown into an expensive and awkward solution to his problems. There’s a company called Arra run by benevolent Doctor Jo Scott (Glenn Close) that can create a perfect duplicate of you. One day the clone wakes up and thinks it’s you. Your family is none the wiser, and you can go die somewhere in peace.
To clone or not to clone?
He’s skeptical, of course, and he’s still very upset about the shock of the news that he’ll be dying. So when he sees his body double, he almost backs out immediately. He thinks Poppy should have a say in the matter. But, as Dr. Scott points out, the minute he tells her, it’s her decision, not his. He’d be burdening Poppy with a choice too big for her to be able to make.
If he went for the swap, she’d know she’d be waking up next to a creature that looks like her husband but isn’t. Not the best thing to spring on your wife two seconds after you tell her you’re dying. To add to the trouble, Poppy is two months pregnant with their second child.
Nevertheless, Cameron can’t fully divest himself of the idea. At Dr. Scott’s urging, he meets up with Kate (Awkwafina), a real estate agent who is also a duplicate (although she has no idea). She seems suitably human to Cameron, but that freaks him out, too.
He then meets the real Kate, who’s living on the grounds of Arra’s secret facility deep in the woods. She seems plenty bummed about having given up her life. The more time Cameron spends watching his double acclimate to life, the more bummed he gets, too. Can he actually go through with this?
As always with high-concept parables, Swan Song requires a higher than average degree of suspension of disbelief to engage with the text. How is it, we ask, that we’ve arrived at the year 7 billion (or whenever this is set), when we can control people’s memories, create perfect clones, and keep phones in our brains, but we haven’t been able to isolate the nefarious cells responsible for a handful of terminal illnesses?
But, of course, you must ignore that or you’ve got no movie.
Swan Song was never about technology, really. It’s about saying goodbye. And as such, it’s plenty gripping. Obviously, making this kind of a chamber drama (the always-remarkable Adam Beach rounds out the small cast as one of the other doctors at Arra) is the right approach to hashing out questions about the end of life.
The movie feels at times like an adaptation of a stage play, but the dialogue is more modern and free, so you never get a sense of theatricality. Ali is one of our great contemporary performers, so he grounds everything he does. And luckily, in Beach, Close and Harris, he’s got cohorts willing to follow suit. There is also, it must be said, something devilish about choosing Awkwafina to play a clone of another person while there’s an angry secret personality hidden away from society.
Strong performances, sci-fi nods
Ali gives a beautiful performance, as always. The man’s been doing stupendous work his whole career and it’s been nice to see that winning two Oscars freed him up rather than trapping him. A lot of people don’t know how to follow up their moment in the spotlight. And while a sci-fi clone film doesn’t strike me as the most respectable idea on paper, Swan Song allows him to play a regular guy going through the worst crisis in his life.
He laughs, cries, struggles, flinches and screams with astonishing immediacy. Putting him opposite Beach is a little tragic, however. If more people had given Beach a chance, he easily could have been a star like Ali is now. He’s a wonderful screen presence. And though this movie could have used more of him, I’m happy for what I can get. As for Close, you can’t say enough nice things about her. She’s been handing in ridiculously accomplished performances for almost 50 years.
Swan Song offers dozens of echos of other modern sci-fi films. The production design and central dynamic is right out of Alex Garland’s Ex Machina, though this movie possesses a cleaner aesthetic. Cleary doesn’t have Garland’s interest in the grubbier parts of the human condition, and he directs with a more anonymous hand. Just the idea of making a sci-fi spin on the dying partner/father drama feels much more schematic than Garland, a writer who thinks within genre, rather than from without.
I can’t lose you
Swan Song seems at first like it’s headed toward the expected round of reconciliations and goodbyes. Then, about halfway through, the film takes a big swing and threatens to become a thriller. Indeed, it looks like it’s about to become the indie equivalent of Michael Bay’s The Island, itself a clone of a dreadful, no-budget Logan’s Run riff from 1979 called Parts: The Clonus Horror. (The makers of Parts successfully sued Bay and his producers for idea theft, one of the greatest victories for upstart creators on the books, if only because it conjures the image of a jury room watching Parts: The Clonus Horror.)
However, Cleary doesn’t go the expected route here, either. Ultimately, Swan Song‘s little victories lie in what it threatens to do and yet avoids. It’s a careful film, rarely putting a hair out of place, but it also understands that it’s got a responsibility to the cast members — and it does right by them.
After the deeply forgettable Finch, my hackles got up preparing to watch another Apple TV+ film about the wonders and dangers of technology set in a world filled with Apple product-adjacent accoutrements. Swan Song, however, is a deeply felt work with a magnificent central performance.
Watch Swan Song on Apple TV+
Swan Song premieres December 17 on Apple TV+.
Watch on: Apple TV+
Scout Tafoya is a film and TV critic, director and creator of the long-running video essay series The Unloved for RogerEbert.com. He has written for The Village Voice, Film Comment, The Los Angeles Review of Books and Nylon Magazine. He is the author of Cinemaphagy: On the Psychedelic Classical Form of Tobe Hooper, the director of 25 feature films, and the director and editor of more than 300 video essays, which can be found at Patreon.com/honorszombie.