Cozy is perhaps the last adjective that leaps to mind for movies about clones. But it’s the road less traveled for Benjamin Cleary’s Swan Song — simultaneously debuting Friday in theaters and on Apple TV+.
Prioritizing sentiment over ethical challenges or even violent confrontations between man and double affords an appealing approach often untapped by this science-fiction subset — the psychological preparation of a clone that also requires its source to definitively relitigate all the misgivings and mistakes that most of us file away for good reason. While it’s refreshing to see anxieties more arrested here, it also feels a bit like Ron Howard directing a Charlie Kaufman screenplay that he took upon himself to rewrite.
Cameron Turner (Mahershala Ali) is an artist, husband and father who has made a comfortable life with his spouse, Poppy (Naomie Harris) in an indeterminate future of immense technological advancement. (Cleary nails these everyday details, establishing a just-intimate-enough interaction with perpetual automation to convey how it’s ingrained for these characters and employing the talents of production designer Annie Beauchamp to render every surface an aesthetically and functionally sound charging station.)
But Cameron is also dying, a devastating development he has thus far kept from Poppy and their son, Cory (Dax Rey). When Cameron suffers seizures in his bathroom, his impulse is to seek shelter rather than help. Poppy’s response to a previous untimely loss colors Cameron’s approach on the matter. So it’s with that in mind that he reaches out to Dr. Scott (Glenn Close) — a scientist who creates biologically and psychologically identical clones to insert into the lives of the secretly, and terminally, ill. That way, their family, friends and colleagues never have to know anything was wrong, and life can spin on for those that might otherwise be devastated by death.
It’s never clear just how far outside the law Dr. Scott is working, but accessing the facilities does require a very moody-looking boat ride. And although she’s only completed the procedure twice, she assures Cameron it will be as common as a heart transplant in just a few years. Plus, no one, she claims, will ever be the wiser about her work, even the clone. They also modify relevant DNA strands so the clones won’t get the same illness later on. Once the process is complete, Cameron will live out his remaining days on the island and the surviving Turners’ world will spin on none the wiser.
There are a few insert scenes featuring Awkwafina as a woman who has undergone the procedure and is awaiting her death on Dr. Scott’s island. They serve their purpose for both the caustic comic relief you might expect but also for Awkwafina to stretch further into drama than she did in The Farewell. But they also interrupt the film’s immersive journey for Cameron, in whom the two-time Oscar-winner Ali finds a more taciturn soul than the flashier, outspoken roles for which he won statuettes in Moonlight and Green Book. That doesn’t mean he lacks a sensitivity for divergent characterization in Jack, as the clone will be known until (or even if) he’s sent into Cameron’s world.
Swan Song is at its most fascinating when fixating on Dr. Scott’s process of psychological guidance for both original and clone. Will Jack turn into a Cameron who will continue to be emotionally unavailable to Poppy in all of the same ways? Is it his instinct as a product to outshine the original? And if so, won’t the ruse be up in a moment? Meanwhile, how, if at all, can Cameron reconcile relinquishing the security, comfort and safety of his family to an unproven scientific process? The chaotic and contradictory process that tests Jack’s existential fidelity to Cameron affords Ali to excel on either side of the performative equation, each of them sharing little pieces with each other until they either do, or do not, meet in the middle. Meanwhile, Close brings compassion and warmth to someone essentially gathering data points on grief and uncertainty … and, in a way, conscripting the terminally ill into her sales team.
A final-act feint at light thriller elements thankfully doesn’t tip Swan Song into ridiculousness. But it does introduce enough unnecessarily flimsy flaws that the moderately suspenseful sequence hardly seems worthwhile. To boot, it’s not clear how the postscript plays from a perspective of plausibility unless someone’s lying about a certain promise in the process. While there’s much to admire about Swan Song, it ultimately hews a bit too close to feeling like a feature-length commercial for the service at its center should it ever come to exist. That feeling is only exacerbated by its presentation on Apple TV+; are they going to solicit focus-group responses from people who watched this in a few months’ time? Still, there could be worse smoothed-down Genius Bar versions of Ex Machina.