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  • Writer's pictureS.J.

'Swan Song' Review: Sci-Fi Drama Has Mahershala Ali Seeing Double & Worrying About Legacy

Mahershala Ali sitting in an armchair
Apple Original Films

When your searches feel the need to include the director's name to distinguish a movie from another one with the same title released in the very same year, you know someone has gone and messed it up big time, or just someone was on their high horse so no name changes occurred. Director and writer Benjamin Cleary's feature-length debut is one of the two carrying the name Swan Song this year, though deciding to take more of a sci-fi drama route.

Mahershala Ali suits up for a double role, first as Cameron/''Cam'' who after getting a diagnosis for his terminal illness, considers an opportunity to leave behind a clone of himself to live out the rest of days that he can't. The clone that is prepped at a high-class facility of Dr. Scott (Glenn Close) is then named Jack to differentiate them. However if Cam wants to accept the offer, the bargain is that he must not let his wife Poppy (Naomie Harris) and son Cory (Dax Rey) know about the procedure.

Even though the ideas presented by Cleary have often been explored earlier in other films, there's still some room for them to be compelling if some specificity can be found through characters or environments. Unfortunately the first act runs into trouble in that regard and Swan Song is never quite able to fully recover from it. Exploring who and how Cam is, is done through iffy flashbacks to first encounters between him and Poppy, his everyday family life which features rather generic dialogue and conversations with Dr. Scott and another dying patient Kate (Awkwafina) that are just poetry and sci-fi gibberish mixed together.

It's troublesome that only the final third manages to dig deeper, and even that is after a decision is sort of made on behalf of Cam, which just undermines the themes. Another point to highlight is that the final third reveals how the true emotional core isn't really between him and Poppy despite how much time is spent on that; it's actually between Cam and his son, who is even more so what he would leave on the Earth with some parts of him, rather than he would with a clone, should he choose to use one.

While the ebb and flow is quite big with the story and you might not consider it as an upward trajectory until the very end, what is increasing is Ali's performance level in the lead role. It takes a committed actor to realise that when the dialogue lets a story breathe, it is their silence and body language that will translate the character's anguish, abandonment of pride and acceptance of their humanity to the audience. That is what Ali does masterfully throughout and especially in the last 30 minutes.

You'd also kind of wish that you could use the word ''masterful'' to describe the filmmaking which is—don't get me wrong—really slick with the visual effects, Annie Beauchamp's production design and DoP Takayanagi Masanobu's compositions but when the story lacks specificity, it just happens to affect their work too as far as the emotional impact goes. Still, with all of those crafts and Cynthia Ann Summers' costumes, Swan Song has an extraordinary eye for colour and there isn't a single frame that doesn't have depth, vibrancy or straight-up beauty to behold.

Smileys: Mahershala Ali, colouring

Frowneys: Story

No swans were harmed or used for singing in the making of this film, presumably.


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