Swan Song 2021 Movie Review
It’s hard to believe that Mahershala Ali has never been the lead role in a film before, but Benjamin Cleary’s elegiac “Swan Song” is eager to make up for lost time: Not only does Ali get to play the protagonist in this somberly moving sci-fi drama about a dying man who secretly clones himself in order to spare his family the heartache of living without him, he gets to play him twice.
The original Cameron Turner is a sad-eyed illustrator whose inner warmth is only drawn out through the tip of his pencil. In fairness, this movie’s sleek and corner-less vision of the near-future seems like it would make introverts of us all, as Cleary’s debut imagines the day after tomorrow as a place so dominated by wearable tech — specifically membrane-like airpods and contact lens operating systems with UIs that make this Apple Original look as if it’s been adapted from Jony Ive’s wet dreams — that everyone is walled inside their own invisible bubbles, even when they’re sitting across from each other on the same train.
The playful meet-cute between Cameron and his one-day wife Poppy (Ali’s “Moonlight” co-star Naomie Harris) hammers that point home in a hurry, as the two commuters nibble away at the same chocolate bar as if they’ve known each other all their lives. He chuckles at her with each bite, convinced that this beautiful stranger is eating the snack he just bought, only to realize later that his chocolate bar is still in his pocket, and that he was the one acting weird. The scene makes for a slyly brilliant introduction to a fable that will soon be wracked by more philosophical questions of what belongs to whom, and how best to savor the sweetness of our lives in a world where everything can be shared — including our lives, themselves.
If Cleary’s prologue evokes memories of the meet-cute from “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” in the process, that also proves to accurately foreshadow a movie that uses a fanciful procedure as scaffolding for a story about someone trying to pave over their deepest pain. Then again, that’s also the last of their commonalities; where Michel Gondry’s film was kooky and percussive, this one is as morose as a rainy March afternoon, with Jay Wadley’s mournful string and piano score achieving such urgent dystopian sadness that at one point it seamlessly blurs into the Wooden Elephant version of Radiohead’s “Idioteque.”
The details of that sadness reveal themselves soon after “Swan Song” skips forward to its unsettled present (a relative term in a film pockmarked with flashbacks that strive to convey the sense of a person remembering their life for the last time). Cameron is dying of a terminal illness of some kind, an illness that he’s hid from the now-pregnant Poppy and their young son Cory because their family has finally started pulling itself back together after the sudden death of Poppy’s twin brother and the marital drift that followed. “We haven’t been us in a while,” Poppy says, as if inadvertently permitting her husband to swap himself out for a different model. It seems like only a matter of time before Cameron has to share the bad news with his loved ones, unless… unless Dr. Scott can suggest a better idea (Glenn Close reprises the mad scientist mode she owned so well in “The Girl with All the Gifts,” another movie about a white lady playing God with reluctant patients of color).