This weekend we’re watching: ‘Swan Song’, a calm and inquiring sci-fi drama
Irish writer, director and producer Benjamin Cleary’s new sci-fi drama, ‘Swan Song’, is a gentle, graceful iteration of a famous philosophical question addressed with level-headed clarity.
Executive producer Mahershala Ali plays himself twice (both times with a quiet finesse) in Irish writer, director and producer Benjamin Cleary’s new science fiction drama, Swan Song. Set in the near future, Ali plays Cameron, a graphic designer who, upon discovering that he is terminally ill, is offered the opportunity to have his body and consciousness cloned and covertly inserted into his life in his place.
Production designer Annie Beauchamp has smoothed out this near future so that it feels close to our own despite its minimalist, streamlined space-age technology. Cloudy matte grey tones stylishly integrate the self-driving cars and tiny earpieces into the tableau.
In the opening scene, an AI service robot in a commuter train calls Cameron “mah man!”, an awkwardly intentional use of African-American vernacular which is a subtly satirical indication to viewers that racial profiling has persisted into this pseudo-utopia.
A stranger (Poppy), played by Naomie Harris, sits opposite Cameron on the train and, to his bafflement, making no discernable gesture of friendliness, begins unwrapping his chocolate bar. Cameron takes a piece of the chocolate himself and they both smile, but it’s only once Poppy leaves the train that he realises his chocolate was in his pocket the whole time and it was hers they had been sharing.
This meet-cute is clearly based on the 2016 animated short film Snack Attack. As well as being a serious psychological thriller, about grand matters, Swan Song is an intimate love story, and this misunderstanding is the kind of personal interaction that makes it so emotionally relatable.
In the present, the pair is settled into a marriage with a small boy. They both have thriving careers and Poppy is pregnant with a second child, but she is also unaware of Cameron’s disease.
Unable to bear the thought of leaving his family behind, he agrees to an experimental procedure that would allow them to continue to live without grief. What plays out is a stylish modern incarnation of a famous thought experiment relating to the metaphysics of personal identity.
The opportunity forces Cameron to ask himself what he believes he is as an entity. If his identity is intrinsically linked to his physical body, then his replacement by an identical clone robs him of closure and comfort in his dying moments, but if the psychological continuity of his memories is what makes him himself, then he has to accept that his clone is as much him as he is, and just as entitled to go back to his happy life.
These questions are addressed without ever being explicated. We contemplate profound concepts in a way that feels more personal and accessible than academic philosophical theory, even though the ideas explored are essentially the same.
In that way, Swan Song presents a lot like an episode of the acclaimed Netflix sci-fi horror series Black Mirror – doubly spooky because of its measured realism. Indeed, several concepts explored in Black Mirror episodes – such as cloning, memory reviewing and augmented reality interfaces – are commonplace in the world of Swan Song. But Black Mirror tends to caution about the dangers of emerging and theoretical technologies, while Swan Song is more progressive, sympathetically expressing solidarity for the struggle to accept new technologies despite their unfamiliarity.
The closer we get to achieving cloning technology, the more movies and series are made about it and the more fascinating a subject it becomes. A lot of the content that has been made about identical cloning has focused on the concept’s comedic value (Living With Yourself) or its potentially terrifying consequences (Us), but Swan Song does neither. It contemplates the issue from a calm, level-headed perspective that makes it more intriguing as a genuine philosophical enquiry.
Even though there is simmering suspense, there is also a veneer of calmness that makes the film almost meditative. The soft, bittersweet pulp of Swan Song is exemplified by the gentle, poetic voice of Ghanaian-American singer-songwriter Moses Sumney, whose music features several times in the soundtrack. Kind yet melancholic.
The conflict is cerebral and emotionally convoluted – nothing as straightforward as a fist fight. Rather than a larger-than-life protagonist, Cameron is a gentle, logical man who handles the whole process about as well as anyone could be expected to, making the outcome all the more interesting.
Somehow, despite Mahershala Ali’s accolades and talent, this is his first leading role and he does not disappoint. Cameron is a quiet, introverted character, but even in silence Ali portrays recognisable tension between clashing emotions, extracting drama inconspicuously.
The small cast works hard to keep up. Awkwafina plays a woman who has already undergone the duplicating procedure. As both the terminal original and the oblivious clone, she injects an essential microdose of bubbly humour that does not come through until that point from the other more severe characters.
The questions raised by this cloning process are not just metaphysical; they’re also ethical. Is it right to leave Cameron’s terminal self to die alone just because he has agreed to it? Is it fair to bring a sentient human into being if they are not (at least initially) afforded the same rights as other people?
The more unique ethical angle that Swan Song takes regarding the question of continuity of identity is that of altruism. Cameron has to decide what he believes is kindest to his family and whether he has the mental fortitude to live by those beliefs despite his instincts to the contrary.
The dilemma is whether to tell his family that he is dying and to savour his last moments with them, or to insert a clone into his life without their knowledge, thereby allowing them to go on without concern, but requiring his original self to die alone.
Summed up by his doctor (Glenn Close): “Either you decide that your wife would want this, which requires secrecy, or you decide that she wouldn’t and tell her you’re dying. Either way, you’re deciding for her.”
It’s difficult to foresee how Cleary is going to answer any of the questions he poses. The symbolism is nuanced and intelligent, and he never spoon-feeds his audience. Some of the twists and references will only be noticed by attentive viewers; others are set up and suggested, provoking the audience to anticipate familiar conspiratorial, far-fetched plot points that never come to fruition. Cleary opts for deeper, more restrained writing that makes the story novel.
When Cameron first comes into contact with his molecularly and consciously identical self, it seems so unnatural, but that is not necessarily a negative thing – it is disturbing, but also wondrous. We are terrified of that which we do not understand, but with time we can come to appreciate its value.
The maturity and objectivity to consider this unintuitive stance is rare and refreshing, and the seamless manner in which Cleary intertwines these big, scary ideas with drama on a human scale leaves one both intellectually stimulated and emotionally moved. DM/ML
Swan Song is available on Apple TV+.
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