Modern films that are set in the future tend to make it look both glamorous and terrifying. In the minds of many filmmakers, the future will have sleek technology that will bring convenience and simplicity to our lives. On the flip side, though, is the possibility that the people in charge of that technology or the technology itself will turn on us, morphing that easiness into a nightmare scenario.
The world in Swan Song lies somewhere between those two ideas. Set in an indeterminate point in the future, the film sees Cameron Turner (Mahershala Ali) diagnosed with a terminal disease. Unwilling to break the news to his wife, Poppy (Naomie Harris), with whom he has one child and another on the way, Cameron turns to a solution that will allow him to keep living … at a cost.
That answer lies with Dr. Scott (Glenn Close), who runs a company that is not only capable of cloning patients, but can also transfer their complete memory to the clone, allowing the clone to replace the patient before he or she dies. The idea brings up a number of ethical dilemmas, not least of which is the knowledge that the clone could be living life as you while you’re still living.
Written and directed by Benjamin Cleary, who’s making his debut as a feature filmmaker, the film does one of the best jobs in recent memory of integrating future elements into a story without making it all about those parts. An early scene showing the first time Cameron and Poppy met involves a robot that seemingly magically conjures food, but the point of the scene is the connection between the two people, not the fantastical stuff around them.
Likewise, once you get past the sheer idea that a clone could be created and given a person’s memory, the emotions of the situation take over. What must it take for someone to willingly acknowledge their own impending death and hand over control of their life to a clone? How mind-altering would it be to have someone who looks like you, talks like you, and knows everything you do? And, most pressing of all, how difficult would it be to not tell the people you love that you are replacing yourself?
That last one is perhaps the biggest sticking point in the story. Cameron and Poppy are shown to have a very close, perhaps idealized, relationship. Are we really to believe that Poppy has no idea about Cameron’s dire situation? Cameron has multiple close calls during which his condition is almost revealed to Poppy, to the point where Cleary is pushing the edges of plausibility that Poppy can still remain in the dark.
The reason that he can get away with the subterfuge is because he, Ali, and Harris crafted a bond that rivals some of the great romances. Although their relationship is shown mostly in flashback memories, it’s nearly impossible not to swoon over the love Cameron and Poppy have for each other. Both Ali and Harris have rarely been better, each reaching for emotions that are unique and universal at the same time.
The type of story told in Swan Song is typically darker than the one it actually presents, but that doesn’t make its drama any less compelling. It showcases the beauty of both life and death, and the lengths we will go to help the ones we love.
Swan Song is now playing in select theaters and on Apple TV+.