It’s never easy to say goodbye. Many people are not afforded the opportunity to know when the end is coming, and those who are often are less than eager to speak about it for fear of making it more difficult. Advances in medicine and technology have meant that life can be prolonged, even in the direst of circumstances that seem inescapable. That still cannot grant an eternal delay on sadness and grief, though such an idea is immensely appealing. Swan Song explores an intriguing ethical question through a poignant story of a dying man and a chance he sees to stay present for his family.
Cameron (Mahershala Ali) is sick, but he hasn’t told his wife Poppy (Naomie Harris) or his son Cory (Dax Rey). Instead, he pursues an option to essentially clone himself, creating a carbon copy that will be immune to his condition. The catch is that no one can know, even Poppy, because she won’t be able to tell that his replacement is not the same Cameron. As he consults with a doctor (Glenn Close) and Kate (Awkwafina), a woman who has already been replaced, Cameron grapples with the weight of a decision that will have an extraordinary impact on the world he is about to leave.
Swan Song takes place at some point in the near future where cars drive themselves and robotic attendants slide down train aisles speaking to customers and dispensing refreshments. The advancements are subtle but important, and they serve as a framework for the concept that this cutting-edge science could indeed be possible. The existence of cameras that can offer a feed into a home and the transmission of a lifetime’s worth of memories into a synthetic double may be far apart in terms of what would be required to make them real, but this film makes them seamless and equivalent.
Putting this story into a science-fiction context is a clever way to explore an intense and longstanding ethical dilemma. Does Cameron have a responsibility to the people in his life to tell them that the man they’ll continue to love and let in their home isn’t the same one they’ve known, and how different is he really? Do the doctors and scientists who have engineered his clone need to tell them once he is gone? And is there a reason that people are born and die, suggesting that they shouldn’t be enabled to live forever, or even longer than natural causes or other factors might otherwise permit?
Fortunately, this film does not rest solely on the power of its premise, bringing audiences on an emotional journey as Cameron is forced to look at himself not in the mirror but directly at his own face staring back at him. Hearing the two converse and express conflicting aspects of his own personality is very illuminating, and the perspective offered by the only person who can actually understand what Cameron is going through, Kate, is also enlightening. Flashbacks to earlier conversations surrounding the concept involving Poppy and her brother Andre (Nyasha Hatendi) are just as worthwhile and informative.
Ali is an extraordinary actor who brings grace and sensitivity to this role, portraying someone who could be any audience member faced with a sudden terminal diagnosis and an option to, in a way, change their fate. His Moonlight costar Harris is a welcome onscreen partner, demonstrating chemistry with Ali and passion for what Poppy values in her life. Awkwafina brings a reliable mix of humor and seriousness to an endearing supporting role. Writer-director Benjamin Cleary, whose took home an Oscar several years ago for his film short Stutterer, makes an impressive feature debut that manages to weave a thought-provoking issue into a compelling story.
Swan Song will be released in theaters and on Apple TV+ on Friday, December 17th.