‘Swan Song’ Contemplates Mortality With an Absorbing Performance by Mahershala Ali

Director Benjamin Cleary’s directorial debut, “Swan Song,” understands how good science fiction is a conduit for very real fears and human concerns that are present now, and will be in the future. This Apple TV feature tackles that eternally heavy question of how to confront death. It does not imagine alternatives or even afterlives. In this melancholic fable a man faces two choices: Tell his family he is terminally ill or allow a genetic copy of himself to slide in and take his place. Amid cold, futuristic surfaces, Mahershala Ali carries this story to some convincing emotional moments. 

Cameron (Ali) has a terminal illness which he has not disclosed to his wife, Poppy (Naomie Harris), and young son, Cory (Dax Rey). But in this not so distant future, a person in a situation such as Cameron’s has a new option. A corporation represented by Dr. Jo Scott (Glenn Close), will take your genetic code and make a replica of you. Instead of going through the anguish of announcing his coming death to Poppy, Cameron simply lets his replica take over while he leaves to pass away at a facility also overseen by Scott. When his replica, called Jack for now, awakens, it is up to Cameron to spend time with him to begin his full preparation. The experience forces Cameron to face the idea of saying goodbye to Poppy while grappling with the fact that a man who is him, but isn’t, will carry on his life.

In its story and style, “Swan Song” is a film that seems inspired by shows like “Black Mirror.” It has that same combination of slick, clean visual surfaces and a narrative that reaches for deeper human connection. You can almost ignore most of Scott’s medical and tech jargon. What is far more intriguing is the idea of a man facing a copy of himself, as well as his own mortality. “Swan Song” finds a good balance between the scenes at the corporate facility, nestled in a picturesque woodlands setting, and domestic moments between Cameron and Poppy. Benjamin Cleary makes their marriage empathetic. He doesn’t write them as perfect lovers. Poppy is pregnant and frustrated when Cameron decides to be away for days at a time, unaware it’s because he’s preparing his replica Jack to assume his position. As Jack absorbs Cameron’s memories into his mind, flashbacks reveal how the marriage was strained under a recent loss. 

The grander ideas in “Swan Song” give it a welcomed, contemplative mood. At the facility, Cameron meets terminally ill Kate (portrayed with a unique maturity by Awkwafina) who has already done the switch and is simply waiting to die. Their discussions are written with a strong sparsity. Not everything needs to be said and when Kate faces the end, Cameron is there by her side in a wonderful moment that captures true friendship. “Swan Song” has several vivid moments like this, including a moving scene where Cameron gives Cory his first beer, late at night in their kitchen. A more challenging question in this drama is if it’s right to deceive your family into thinking you’re still with them. Then again, if Jack is a complete replica of Cameron, is it actually a deception? Would we care if our loved ones came back as exact copies, as long as it’s them? 

“Swan Song” creates a unique suspense in two ways. First, we wonder if Cameron will actually go through with the switch, and second, his illness is an ever growing specter that threatens to derail the whole plan. A stroke could kill him during his last night to say goodbye to Poppy and Cory or he could die at the facility before Jack is ready to do the switch. Yet the point isn’t suspense. The character of Dr. Scott may remain enigmatic, even underdeveloped, but that does not interfere with the film’s dramatic power. It feels immersive because we are there with Cameron, processing the same thoughts and worries. Benjamin Cleary avoids flashy sci-fi clichés, which allows for “Swan Song” to feel plausible. Mahershala Ali completes this effect with a performance full of warmth and intelligence. A flashback explaining how he first meets Poppy on a train is an example of how inviting of an actor Ali can be. His task becomes even more impressive since he is playing himself as two “different” men. The result is that “Swan Song” reaches emotional highs by contemplating some of our most essential questions about what it means to exist.

Swan Song” begins streaming Dec. 17 on Apple TV+.