‘Swan Song’ Film Review: Mahershala Ali and Naomie Harris Prop Up an Underdeveloped Sci-Fi Premise

AFI 2021: Benjamin Cleary’s feature debut raises ideas about technology and ethics but has little interest in pursuing them

Swan Song
Apple TV+

It’s hard to tell if it’s ironic or merely a coincidence that “Swan Song,” the latest original film from Apple TV+, is all about the way the latest high-tech, ultra-convenient technology just prevents us all from really communicating.

Probably the latter, since the first feature from writer-director Benjamin Cleary — who won an Oscar for his 2015 short “The Stutterer” — seems to have been produced without a single frame of satire involved. This is an earnest and tragic tale about an artist named Cameron, played by Mahershala Ali, who discovers he is dying and, instead of telling his wife and son, chooses to replace himself with a clone who has all his memories so that his family won’t have to mourn him.

This is a service provided by a mysterious group called Arra, led by Dr. Scott (Glenn Close), who claims that in a few years this service will be “as common as a heart transplant,” which suggests either that there are a heck of a lot of heart transplants in the near future or only a small number of the countless people who are dying at any given moment will be able to afford their whole surrogate-clone-replacement plan.

Dr. Scott also explains that Cameron’s wife Poppy (Naomie Harris) and their son Hugo (Dax Rey) cannot ever find out that they are living with a clone. Which means Cameron also cannot tell them that he is dying. If they even find out he’s having seizures, their whole deal is off, so Cameron gets sequestered away in an isolated house in the mountains with only a few doctors, his own clone, and recently-replaced cancer patient Kate (Awkwafina) to keep him company.

The red flags are all over this Arra business. The central conceit — that they will make a human being, give it consciousness, but then kill it immediately if Cameron gets cold feet — is chilling. The secrecy involved suggests sinister motivations and disturbing twists will be revealed and eventually threaten Cameron and his family. And the fact that the house he’s stuck in looks suspiciously like the set from Alex Garland’s “Ex Machina” (another low-budget, high concept sci-fi film about a man questioning the humanity of a newly artificially intelligent life form in the mountains) also doesn’t inspire confidence that everything is going to be hunky-dory.

So it’s a little jarring to discover that “Swan Song” has no interest in subterfuge or intrigue. Cleary’s film is merely a melodramatic thought experiment, one that gives Mahershala Ali ample opportunity to stretch his acting muscles and to play a feature-length death scene while simultaneously fighting for his existential rights as a clone. Ali and Harris give “Swan Song” a powerful emotional honesty that’s consistently undermined by the film’s poorly developed intellectual conceits, but their combined talents are almost enough to justify this film’s existence alone.

Clearly’s screenplay works overtime to justify Cameron’s decision to replace himself, establishing that the recent death of Poppy’s twin brother sent her spiraling into despondent grief for a year, and even clarifying that, when news of this clone technology was first revealed, she said she wouldn’t be opposed to having her mother back. But although it’s easy to understand Cameron’s temptation, the film never considers the possibility of another point of view, perhaps one that respects Poppy enough to let her make her own choices.

Instead, Cameron is told by Dr. Scott that “You have to choose for her,” and that’s a profoundly selfish situation. It’s easy to sympathize with Cameron’s plight, but it’s arguably even easier to sympathize with Poppy: She was miserable because her brother died alone, and she could be denied the opportunity to comfort her husband in his greatest time of need, to say goodbye, and to actually move on with her life instead of being tricked into perpetuating the status quo by a man who has been given the option to control her future by a powerful corporation.

“Swan Song” takes place in a future where technology is specifically designed for ultimate convenience, with aesthetically pleasing HUDs connected to our contact lenses. Poppy leaves digital post-it notes around the house for Cameron to find, which play back recordings of her voice through the mouths of whimsical cartoons that explode into pixels when opened. The film is loaded with products with undeniable appeal, all of them seemingly designed to look like something Apple could realistically unveil at their next press conference.

Kudos to Cleary, director of photography Masanobu Takayanagi (“Stillwater”), and production designer Annie Beauchamp (“On Becoming a God in Central Florida”) for realizing one of the most genuinely believable futuristic worlds in recent cinematic memory. But Cleary’s screenplay fails to draw any connections between the way we use technology to avoid minor inconveniences and the way Cameron is choosing to use technology to avoid the biggest moments of his life.

“Swan Song” has an excellent idea and an excellent cast but only enough actual dramatic material for an “Outer Limits” episode. It probably would have been a great “Outer Limits” episode. As a movie, it’s underdeveloped, but for fleeting moments when Ali and Harris just get to be on-screen together, it’s almost lovely enough to get away with its narrow point of view and missed opportunities.

“Swan Song” opens in US theaters and on Apple TV+ Dec. 17.