As technology and conceptual designs begin to flourish in this day and age, ideas that were once seemingly outlandish have become theoretically possible. Benjamin Cleary plays with these ideas in his new Apple TV original film, Swan Song. A delightfully crafted film exploring a somewhat incomprehensible concept and the ethics behind the science of building a molecularly carbon copy of a human being. Having only directed and written short films (one being an Academy Award Winning Short Film, Stutterer), this is Cleary’s debut feature film, and it is quite easy to see he gave it his all considering the delicate beauty interlaced within every scene. Swan Song is an intimate journey paving a trail for audiences to question and ponder the concept of cloning while also forming a substance filled spectacle.
Swan Song follows Cameron Turner, played by Mahershala Ali, who has been recently diagnosed with an unnamed terminal illness. For the sake of his wife and son, Cameron privately considers a scientific experiment headed by Dr. Scott (Glenn Close) to clone himself in order to leave the world without anyone even noticing. What’s impressive about the world within the film is how plausible and realistic it feels, implementing sci-fi elements but in ways that are reminiscent of Ridley Scott’s sci-fi masterpiece, Blade Runner (1982). Swan Song’s world building is subtle yet intricate which builds a convincing atmosphere while also providing symbolic architecture. And with its many color motifs interspersed throughout the film representing life and death, it becomes more of an art house film. The screenplay itself is written with intent to bring up discussions regarding the ethical issues that come with a concept so controversial, but it handles the idea carefully by taking a neutral stance. Cleary displays the psychological toll as well as the uncanny valley theory accompanying the process of cloning. It’s quite an interesting film, approaching the idea from every angle to answer questions viewers might ask while watching. And the choices made throughout the film when it comes to specific aspects was brilliant, especially when it came to the score or lack thereof during deeply emotional scenes to convey the raw emotional trauma.
Both the tone and cinematography remain consistent and fitting, featuring symmetrical and stagnant angles along with vivid juxtaposition shots. The entirety of the nearly 2-hour film is much like a slideshow in a way, using frequent flashbacks to memories and switching back to reality to frame the 5 stages of death acceptance. Except instead of accepting his terms, it’s his own mind and ideology he battles throughout the experiment. Swan Song is not made to be a thriller or a suspenseful film but more of a realistic representation of death from a first-person point of view. We suffer as much as Cameron, through every stage and it’s due to the outstanding writing and consistent themes. And not to mention the impeccable performances given by every person cast, whether a big part or small, each character was given a role and a purpose.
Cleary played it smart by only writing in a small cast, enhancing the intimacy and evocative narrative. Mahershala Ali as the lead was perhaps one of the film’s best decisions as he is able to give a naturally heartbreaking performance, helping audiences relate to his character more. But more notably, Naomie Harris playing the wife of Cameron Turner goes on to steal every scene she’s in, unleashing a powerhouse of a performance that feels seemingly all too real. Harris never fails to grab your attention, nor does she ever take a moment to fall under 100%, she is truly a charmingly talented individual who mixes perfectly with Ali. It’s a beautiful cast given an equally well written script paced nicely. Even Awkwafina, who has never particularly impressed me in most of work, delivers an adequate performance fitting for the film. As said before, Cleary played it smart, and it paid off astoundingly.
Nevertheless, Benjamin Cleary’s film Swan Song is not perfect, there are imperfections such as the film somewhat falling into the melodramatic trap but there’s something about the line, he treads upon so delicately that it’s difficult not to praise the film for its surprisingly brilliant efforts. From the forefront, the film appears to be pretentious but as you peel back the layers, you’ll begin to notice there is much more substance than previously assumed. It’s a thought-provoking film that glides along the sci-fi genre subtlety, avoiding many tropes to make way for a more serious aspect of science fiction. I hope to see more of Cleary in the future, his style and unique storytelling makes for beautiful stories. This alluring new film will strike those who can appreciate slow burns featuring menacingly raw writing and stimulating conceptual ideas.