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Swan Song review – Mahershala Ali elevates a grounded sci-fi debut

Benjamin Cleary's vision of the future might look familiar, but its gently probing plot avoids cliche and asks powerful questions

Bearing more than a passing resemblance to near-future sci-fi like Black Mirror, Westworld, and Ex Machina, Benjamin Cleary’s ambitious and beguiling directorial debut Swan Song initially – with its focus on clones – looks like another film asking “what makes us human?” It’s an important question, of course, but one that feels rather played out by this point, so it’s such a refreshing surprise when Swan Song really reveals its hand. Cleary uses his replacement-people plot to instead ask “how much more honest would you be with yourself if you could talk to a physical you?” finding moving and complex answers in the process.

In the dual role of original and clone is Mahershala Ali, playing graphic designer Cameron, who is dying of terminal brain cancer that he’s keeping hidden from his music teacher wife Poppy (Naomie Harris) and their young son. Secretly, he’s signed up to a new cloning program, one that recreates its subjects with all their memories, effectively able to replace dying people so that neither the clone or their loved ones have any idea that anything has changed. We mostly follow Cameron in the week he is with his clone in the facility – named Jack before he’s sent out into the world – to make sure everyone’s psychologically ready to progress.

Ali is excellent in a pair of buttoned-down performances that occasionally burst into angry life whenever Cameron or Jack face a crisis of conscience. Cleary makes sure that the issue is not if the tech will actually work, it’s whether Cameron can stomach another him living in his home, caring for his wife and son. The confrontations between the pair are clever and moving, carefully sidestepping cliches – for example, there’s never any doubt between them as to who is the “real” Cameron. Jack is saddened by some of the ways Cameron has lived his life, allowing Cameron to air his most private regrets out loud, which grounds the futuristic premise in deeply personal stakes.

Most of the other characters don’t get much of a look in, though. It might have been nice to get to know Poppy a bit better, and the issue of her consent (given that the replacement process only works with her in the dark) is only hazily handled. Meanwhile, Glenn Close and Awkwafina fade into the background as the doctor in charge of the process and a previous cloned person, respectively. But this is Cameron’s story, and for the most part the direct focus on him is for the best – it’s pretty much impossible to have too much Mahershala Ali in a movie.

Cleary’s near-future worldbuilding is hardly innovative – you’ve seen pretty much all these details in plenty of films before – but it is nicely lived-in. “Soft” and “clean” appear to be the watchwords, new technologies comfortably integrated into everyday life while the facility itself looks like an Apple-run spa. This cosy autumnal aesthetic serves to heighten the impact of any violent disruptions – the memory transfers in particular have a visceral shock to them that’s hard to shake off.

By the end of Swan Song, you’re left with a feeling that is unusual for most near-future sci-fi; one of hope. This is a touchingly optimistic view of tomorrow, even with the murky moral maze of human replacement. In a world dominated by sleek technology, Cleary sees room for the human basics and the enduring joys of sharing your life with people who matter.

Swan Song is released in cinemas and streaming on Apple TV+ from 17 December.

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