What if you had to say goodbye to someone but they didn’t know you were saying goodbye—indeed couldn’t know you were saying goodbye—because, in their eyes, you weren’t, in fact, leaving them?
That’s the slightly loopy premise behind Swan Song. Mahershala Ali plays Cameron, an artist in the near future (which we know is the near future because the robot server on his train delivers a food and beverage order perfectly and does not try to get him to electrocute himself as part of an Internet challenge) who has a terminal case of cancer. He knows it. His oncologist knows it. But his wife and child do not yet know it.
Enter Dr. Jo Scott (Glenn Close), who has a revolutionary … well, not cure, exactly. But a continuance. A stay of execution. She can recreate Cameron’s body and brain perfectly, and then upload his memories—even the darkest ones buried down deep in his subconscious—into a new body, which they call Jack (Ali again, for obvious reasons) for the time being. The only catch is that Cameron’s wife, Poppy (Naomie Harris), and son, Cory (Dax Rey), can’t know about the switch because Jack can’t know about the switch after it’s been done. He has to think he’s just … Cameron.
It’s a clever concept, putting just enough of a spin on the age-old philosophical question of whether or not we’re more than our memories to be worth the effort. Writer-director Benjamin Cleary does a very capable job in his feature directorial debut; Swan Song calls to mind Alex Garland’s Ex Machina, in part because of the questions it asks surrounding personhood and in part because of the sparse sci-fi setting (much of the action takes place in a remote, sparsely inhabited compound). There’s nothing visually groundbreaking but there’s nothing to break the spell either, and that’s nothing to sneer at.
The film works as well as it does because it has one of the best and most interesting actors of our time, Mahershala Ali, playing the dual roles of Cameron and Jack. A two-time Oscar winner—he is absolutely the best thing about Green Book and Moonlight, the latter a movie that, despite its Best Picture Oscar, never recovers from his absence after the first act—Ali has spent the last decade racking up incredibly strong performances in a series of intriguing projects.
Whether he’s an escaped slave struggling to capture a piece of the postwar American dream in Free State of Jones or a cop struggling with memory problems in the third season of True Detective, Ali is always the most magnetic presence onscreen, always commanding the attention of everyone in the room with the fire in his eyes.
And Swan Song is no exception: if you’re going to make a film about the internal struggle a terminal cancer patient is having not only with himself but also his clone, you damn well better have a guy who on hand who can sell both sides of that, who can play it just different enough depending on whether he’s Cameron or Jack to make sure that audiences can sense their turmoil without losing track of who is who. Ali is one such guy.
Swan Song is on AppleTV+ now and it feels as though it’s gotten a little lost in the end-of-year shuffle. A pity, but not terribly surprising: With the exception of Ted Lasso and maybe Mythic Quest (the best show on TV you’re not watching), stuff seems to go to AppleTV+ to disappear. I can’t say I’ve seen many people talking about their $25 million Sundance purchase CODA despite raves on the festival circuit and some early awards-season buzz. Finch got people talking a bit more, I suppose, but even it only has between 500 and 1,000 audience ratings on Rotten Tomatoes. An unscientific metric, certainly, but handy enough as a indicator of overall visibility. (For example: Swan Song, despite dropping two weeks ago, doesn’t have enough ratings for an official audience rating from RT.)
It’s too bad; in addition to pretty solid original shows like the ones mentioned above, Apple TV+ has a well curated lineup of films like Greyhound and Wolfwalkers and Palmer. Their biggest splash is coming up next month: The Tragedy of Macbeth, starring Denzel Washington and directed by Joel Coen, is in limited release now and is hitting the streaming service in January. It’s sure to get some Oscar buzz, given its pedigree. (The Coens are beloved, even when separated, and the Brit who wrote the original this is adapted from has his fans too.)
Swan Song is worth seeking out. If the future of small-scale adult dramas is to subsist on streaming, the least we can do is try to watch them when they do appear.