There’s no escaping the fact that writer/director Benjamin Cleary’s debut film, Swan Song, feels very familiar. This “lo-fi sci-fi” film, set in the not-too-distant future, deals not with aliens and robots, but instead grapples with a much more subtle approach to how the advances of technology impact human lives, very reminiscent of several recent films and television shows, such as Black Mirror, Ex Machina and Devs. Where Cleary’s narrative diverges into its own territory, however, is in his approach to the subject. While most recent thoughtful sci-fi films have offered up cautionary tales, Cleary’s screenplay chooses to explore the emotional impact of technology on our lives much more than the physical. And while that makes it a much more significant theoretical experience, it unfortunately proves to be a slightly more tedious one as well.
Two-time Oscar winner Mahershala Ali plays Cameron, a happily married family man who seems to have it all. His wife, Poppy, played by Naomie Harris, is newly pregnant with their second child, and all is well. But what Cameron hasn’t told Poppy is that he’s dying and his oncologist has given him the name of a clinic that could offer him a unique opportunity to eliminate any of the pain for his family that would come from Cameron’s illness and death. After visiting the clinic, run by the enigmatic Dr. Scott (played by Glenn Close), Cameron has to make a decision that will affect his family’s life forever.
Most of the film is spent watching Cameron agonize over his decision, both in making it and during his second thoughts afterward. While Ali’s performance is sheer mastery, Cleary’s script runs out of new material pretty early on, leaving Ali to carry the rest of the film with his anguish. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, considering how brilliant Ali’s performance is, especially when paired with Harris. The chemistry between the two is magnetic, and Harris takes a role that could have played as set dressing and fleshes it out, creating a fully-formed character with texture and significance, adding to the emotional impact of the film. But it is Ali, whose emotional journey as Cameron sits at the center of Swan Song, who gives this film every bit of its weight and impact.
But the acting needs a little more support from the script. Cleary clearly wanted to dig deeply into emotional places, wanted to explore grief and love and the emotional toll our decisions take on us and those around us, but he chooses to largely ignore the moral and ethical conundrums that are raised. The future no doubt will offer humanity some great opportunities, but at what cost? The film focuses on whether or not Cameron will choose to take this opportunity, but never really discusses whether he should. It is a blind spot that significantly diminishes the film’s overall impact.
Glenn Close’s strangely bland performance as a supposedly genius—possibly mad?—doctor who runs a mysterious clinic in the middle of the woods, only accessible by boat, is a wasted opportunity to give a legendary actress something more to sink her teeth into, which is a shame. Cleary challenges the audience to confess their built-in distrust in all things futuristic, daring us to believe that things will take a sinister turn—I mean, don’t they always? But Swan Song subverts most expectations of the genre, for better or worse.
One thing that definitely rises above expectation is the gorgeous cinematography by Masanobu Takayanagi, who makes the future look absolutely sumptuous. Kudos also to production and set designers Annie Beauchamp, Michael Diner, Howard Lau, and Callum Webster, whose futuristic cars and vending machines make me want to live a lot longer than I probably will. And Awkwafina delivers in a small supporting role that gives the film some much-needed lighter moments. But the best calling card still for Swan Song is the central performance by Mahershala Ali, who absolutely delivers an emotional and shattering performance in this film, his first starring film role, that’s despite already having two Oscars. While there is the wish that Cleary’s script had offered a little more meat in its bones, he is clearly a filmmaker with vision and heart, and Swan Song is a fine debut indeed.
This review is from the AFI FEST film festival. Apple Original Films will release Swan Song in theaters and on Apple TV+ on December 17.