'Swan Song' review: Mahershala Ali's hammy sci-fi drama sings familiar tune
Courtesy of Apple TV+
Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: A futuristic sci-fi drama where folks clone themselves and keep living their lives as if nothing has happened. It’s a regurgitated plot thread and writer/director Benjamin Cleary understands the principle (in fact, plays into it) throughout the melancholic “Swan Song.” But most of those movies didn’t have two Mahershala Ali’s for the price of one and just when you assume the two-time Oscar winner can’t raise the bar, he decides to play opposite himself. A big score for Cleary’s directorial debut, Ali brings subtle nuance and a gripping presence despite getting trapped inside a routine narrative that hints at something bolder though ultimately plays it safe.
Ali plays graphic designer Cameron who is married to Poppy (Naomie Harris), someone he met serendipitously on a train ride over a spat involving candy. He relives this moment through one of those holographic devices that exists only in sci-fi movies. The pair have a small son, but Cameron is staring down the barrel of a terminal illness and fears it’ll devastate his wife (who recently dealt with her own horrific tragedy) and is considering an experimental operation.
It involves a biotech company run by an optimistic Dr Scott (Glenn Close) whose firm creates perfectly replicated carbon copies of her patients who then, after some mental testing, memory implantation, and crash courses, are integrated into the daily life of the individual without their family’s knowledge. This creates a bitter divide with Cameron who can’t fathom leaving his family in the hands of a stranger even after seeing a “duplicate” in action. Enter Awkwafina’s Kate, Dr. Scott’s first patient in the program, whose clone is living a beneficial life after her human counterpart became diagnosed with cancer. It’s an underutilized role for Awkwafina (who has maybe four minute of screen time) but another solid snag for Cleary, injecting notable credibility into a minor supporting character when it could have easily been thrown away.
Cameron eventually splits into two and the mano-e-mano shakedown between himself and the doppelganger (nicknamed Phil) is masterfully done. Questions are raised about the ethics and legality of duplicating someone (Dr. Scott’s program is mentioned briefly on the news and is quickly labeled controversial) and whether it's a safe procedure. There’s brief chatter about Phil’s mental cognizance, but it never becomes more than a blip on the radar. It’s a bummer “Swan Song” isn’t smart or aware enough to dig deeper into those conundrums (nor offer a twist one might assume is coming), instead steering a familiar course that benefits from a stylish production design and a commanding lead performance but lacks something definitive for audiences to veer towards.
SWAN SONG debuts on Apple TV+ and in select theaters Friday, December 17th