It’s hard to believe that one of Hollywood’s greatest stars has yet to lead his own film, but here Mahershala Ali is – one Oscar under his belt – and no leading roles to show for it.
Now “Swan Song” has arrived and it’s making up for lost time, with Ali pulling double duty starring across from himself in the low-lift sci-fi drama. But beyond simply being a vessel for an actor’s long-awaited step into the spotlight, “Swan Song” delivers one of the most poignant, profound and flat-out emotional films of the year.
Part romance, part comedy, and set in a near-future world, “Swan Song” expertly bounces between genres, allowing Ali to flex everything he has to offer, all while weaving a heartbreakingly beautiful narrative.
In a not-too-distant future, technology rules everything – more so than it already does. Artificial intelligence is incorporated into everything and wearable tech is so ingrained that screens are simply projections of your digital contacts. At times, the technology makes this feel like it could be a feature-length episode of “Black Mirror.” But with these advancements come new medical procedures, which is good news for Cameron Turner (Ali), whose terminal illness has turned his life into a ticking clock.
With a wife (Naomie Harris) and son to worry about, Cameron quietly agrees to take part in a top-secret medical procedure to make sure they’re cared for – by another version of himself. At a remote medical facility, Dr. Jo Scott (Glenn Close) introduces Cameron to a genetically engineered clone of himself, identical in every way, even down to the memories. When Cameron’s condition goes beyond the point of no return, this alternate version, known as “Jack,” will replace him in real life as if nothing ever happened, allowing his family to unknowingly continue on without missing a step.
But letting go isn’t that easy – even if Cameron knows it’s for the best – and when his health worsens quicker than expected, the chance to properly say goodbye disappears just as fast.
In the hands of a lesser cast, “Swan Song” could have ended up a simple, melodramatic tale of love and loss. Luckily, that’s not the case thanks to Ali and Co. Even if he’d never led a film himself, there’s never been a doubt of what Ali is capable of putting onscreen, “Swan Song” simply lets him show it. Running the full gamut of emotions as two distinct characters – one hopeless, wistful and jealous, the other eager and optimistic – Ali’s performance is a tour de force. At the core of each man, though, is his love of life and family, and the burning desire to get back to it.
This feeling gives “Swan Song” its powerful emotional core, as director Benjamin Cleary taps into the universal wish to have more time, and to make sure your loved ones are safe once yours runs out. With such a profound examination of mortality at the film’s core, it would have been easy for it to collapse under the weight of its own themes. Initially, my hope was for a film so crushing it would move me to tears – and while the tears certainly came, “Swan Song” incorporates a surprising amount of laughter and levity to prevent it from feeling too overwhelming.
But when the third act rolls around, what I thought I wanted finally arrives. The weight of everything the film has established comes to a head, releasing all of its emotions and grief in a powerhouse finale. On three separate occasions in the final 30 minutes alone, tears were falling. While the futuristic technology that permeates “Swan Song” may be decades away, the ever-present feeling of mortality is not – and the film beautifully exposes that.
Beyond the beauty of its performances and story, “Swan Song” is a spectacle to behold. The production design and setting feel familiar yet futuristic, allowing the film to feel believable despite its premise. The laboratory doubles as a stunning lakeside mansion in a neo futuristic style, and its glass walls and windows allow for some excellent and unique camerawork. With sci-fi in particular, it’s easy to go overboard with the gadgets and technology, but everything in “Swan Song” – save for the cloning – feels plausible enough that it’s hard to decide whether it’s appealing or terrifying.
“Swan Song” may not be on many radars this close to the end of the year, but those who make time for it will be treated to a film that’s overflowing with passion and emotion, as well as one of the year’s best performances.
Zach Goins is a member of the North Carolina Film Critics Association based in Raleigh, N.C. Zach co-founded Inside The Film Room in 2018 and serves as Editor-in-Chief of the website and co-host of the podcast. Zach also serves as a film critic for CLTure.org.