If you knew you were going to die, what if there was a way to shield your loved ones from the inevitable grief? What if you could make them continue to live their lives, unaware that you ever left them? That’s the Eternal Sunshine-adjacent premise of Swan Song, a new sci-fi drama set in a near-future world of driverless cars, virtual reality, and Minority Report-like 3D screens.
Cameron (Mahershala Ali) is a graphic designer who agrees to be part of a secret alternative cloning experiment after he’s diagnosed with a vague terminal illness. His doctor (Glenn Close) lays out the pertinent information: An exact replica containing all his memories, emotions, and experiences will seamlessly take his place so that his family won’t suffer through his slow deterioration. After two weeks with the family, Cameron’s clone will forget that he even is a clone and life will continue as normal.
A doting husband and father, Cameron agrees to the experiment in order to protect his young son, Cory (Dax Rey), and his pregnant wife, Poppy (Naomie Harris), who has only recently emerged from a deep depression following her twin brother’s death. But when he’s actually face-to-face with his clone, Jack (also Ali), he naturally has doubts—especially when a sudden seizure prevents him from saying a proper goodbye to his family.
Simply put, Swan Song would be dead on arrival without Ali’s dual performance, which manages to ground the film’s tearjerker premise in credible human emotion. Ali plays Cameron as a man who’s grappling with his own doomed fate while also wanting to spare his family from further sorrow; it’s a restrained, affecting turn that doesn’t suppress vulnerability. Meanwhile, instead of being a prototypical “wicked” twin, Jack is fairly sympathetic towards Cameron’s struggle—he merely wants to perform the service for which he was brought into the world. Ali makes him compassionate, albeit a little mysterious, as he finds himself attached to Poppy and Cory suspiciously quickly.
Yet Ali’s sheer charisma can’t save Swan Song from its general inertness. Writer-director Benjamin Cleary takes a “tell and show” approach to dramatic storytelling, with frequent voiceover or explicit dialogue underlining otherwise observable events. Ali and Harris share chemistry together, best expressed in their strained meet-cute, but their relationship is so sparsely developed that it’s difficult to get too invested in Cameron’s sacrifice. Emotions are constantly stated instead of conveyed—likely a deliberate choice, in light of Cameron’s inability to communicate his feelings to his wife, but still one that transforms Swan Song into a literalist slog to sit through.
Cleary deploys his small cast as mere narrative insulation. Awkwafina shows up in a few scenes as another terminal patient in the experiment, serving up both mild comic relief and mild pathos. Andre (Nyasha Hatendi), Poppy’s brother, also appears for two scenes to communicate the important information that he is Poppy’s brother. The compound in which Cameron and the rest of the patients live out their remaining days is run by a team of three, alongside many AI robots, which is a pretty funny explanation for indie film budgeting realities. There’s a lot of downtime in Swan Song, so much so that you might ask yourself questions like, “Is that a string quartet cover of Radiohead’s ‘Idioteque’ playing right now?” (The answer would be yes.)
What Swan Song really bungles is Cameron’s ethical dilemma. In Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind, screenwriter Charlie Kaufman used his sci-fi premise to examine the ways anguish and joy are intimately connected and how people will put themselves through the inevitable former in order to feel just a hint of the latter. Cleary, on the other hand, merely grazes the disturbing implications of his premise. Isn’t Cameron’s martyrdom a betrayal of his family’s trust? Don’t the experimental team’s ostensibly humanitarian efforts seem like a cover for their capitalist motivations? What if the clones go off script? Swan Song raise questions it has no interest in exploring,
Instead, the film sets all that aside in a tale about how the burden of grief is so awful that it justifies mass deception. Swan Song ends on a disturbing note it seems to believe is actually heartwarming, somehow validating tech overreach and plain old selfishness at the same time. There’s nothing to ponder in the movie. Only casual horrors to either accept or reject.