BAKERSFIELD, Calif. (OPINION) — “Swan Song,” the new Apple TV+ movie starring Mahershala Ali, asks some very serious questions regarding the mysteries of life. The topics broached by this production set in the not too distant future are not as broad as “What is the meaning of life?” but more intense than “Why do I always lose just one sock?”
In the film that is now available on the streaming service, Cameron (Mahershala Ali), a loving husband and father who is expecting his second child with his wife Poppy (Naomie Harris), has just learned that he has a terminal illness. Instead of facing the world where his family must deal with his death and all of the aftermath, Cameron is presented with an alternative solution by his doctor (Glenn Close).
Here’s the really big question to spark philosophical debate.
Is it better for Cameron to tell his family about his illness and embrace his last few days with them or allow a perfect replica of himself to step in so there is no disruption in their lives? The replacement is made from Cameron’s DNA and will be outfitted with every memory he has ever had. It will be a perfect reboot except without the fatal disease.
If Cameron makes the swap, he must deal with the dilemma of giving up his family even when he knows it will save them pain and suffering. He also will have to live his final days knowing that someone else will be raising his new child and living his life.
Actors who are as talented as Mahershala Ali are both a gift and curse for a director. Ali can handle the most complicated of emotions with such dignity and determination that he is an acting force on the screen.
The problem is that when actors are this uncanny, it is not an easy task to find other members of the cast. Think of it being similar to when Muhammad Ali was at his peak as a boxer. There were very few people who had the talent to step foot in the same arena as him.
Director/writer Benjamin Cleary (Stutterer”) gets close to dealing with the problem with the casting of Close as Cameron’s doctor. The Oscar-worthy Close brings a deep compassion and empathy to the character that is needed because the topics are so mind bending.
There is also a solid performance by Awkwafina as a fellow patient. It is one of her most subdued efforts, a necessity in a film that forces everything inward.
The real tour de force is that Mahershala Ali ends up acting with himself. Scenes where the real and duplicated Cameron are together reaches a stunning level of emotional intensity as Ali keeps topping himself.
The script by Cleary dares to dream big as it addresses the question of potential immortality, the divine right of self and the degree to which memories define who we have become. These questions are pondered but the writer comes up short from fully committing to the most dramatic of all the mysteries of life.
Spirituality never plays a part in the story. Granted, there is no way in a film that runs just under two hours to ask and answer the question of what is a soul. But, the transference of memories would mean a person’s spiritual beliefs would be part of the equation.
A hesitancy to boldly face epic arguments or even offer any answers to smaller questions ends up being the main weakness of “Swan Song.” The team gets points for creating a movie that relies more on thought-provoking moments rather than juvenile action. One brave step into dealing with the great unknowns would have elevated the movie to a grand level.
“Swan Song” never lives up to its full potential but it should not be completely faulted for seeing its philosophical reach exceed its grasp. The opportunity to watch actors as good as Ali and Close deal with a story that pushes hard to elevate it above the mundane masses of entertainment answers one big question.
Why can’t all motion pictures be willing to push past mediocrity into a place where the best actors deal with complicated and entertaining stories?
Cast: Mahershala Ali, Glenn Close, Naomie Harris, Awkwafina.
Director: Benjamin Cleary
Rated: R for language
Running time: 112 minutes.