Review: Futuristic drama ‘Swan Song’ showcases Mahershala Ali — twice

Mahershala Ali and Naomie Harris in "Swan Song."
(Kimberley French/Apple TV+)

The Los Angeles Times is committed to reviewing new theatrical film releases during the COVID-19 pandemic. Because moviegoing carries inherent risks during this time, we remind readers to follow health and safety guidelines as outlined by the CDC and local health officials. We will continue to note the various ways readers can see each new film, including drive-in theaters in the Southland and VOD/streaming options when available.

Mahershala Ali is a really good actor.

That’s hardly news — he has won two Oscars — but his work in the new sci-fi-tinged drama “Swan Song” drives that point home. Among his many remarkable qualities as a performer is his ability to be completely present in scenes. That sounds simple, but you can feel it when an actor really is there, and it certainly isn’t all the time. With Ali, the most basic things, such as seeing what may be his new — and final — living quarters for the first time, feel fully experienced and informed by the roiling emotions, the conflicting thoughts behind his character’s eyes. And it’s all subtly done, without reaching or pushing. He delivers a grounded performance with so many emotional colors of mourning, resistance and longing — and he does it twice in one movie.


In the convincing near-future world of the film, Cameron (Ali) is a devoted family man and a talented artist and designer. He and his beloved wife, Poppy (Naomie Harris), are navigating a rough patch and have recently learned they’re going to have their second child. However, Cam has also learned he will die soon from a neurological condition. He is secretly exploring a new technological option: cloning himself, imparting his memories to the copy and stepping aside to let the duplicate (informally named “Jack” and also played by Ali) take over his life without his family’s knowledge of the switch.

Of course, that opens up a whole cannery of cans of worms, ethical and emotional. Writer-director Benjamin Cleary’s script considers the complications but is never didactic. Instead, the script conveys much with economy and even in unspoken or barely spoken exchanges. Cam is not only wrestling with the morality of what would be a lifelong deception in the name of love but, as one character puts it, the agony of agreeing to be “left behind.” Jack wants to live, but there is truly no one who could better understand Cam’s qualms.

Cleary makes his feature writing and directing debut after a number of shorts, including the Oscar-winning “Stutterer.” Though he and his cast are dealing with complex themes and powerful emotions, the film never feels as if it’s going for the Oscar moment. The shards of memory involving Poppy going through a traumatic loss feel like just the right pieces; the fragments showing us what sort of father Cam is fit perfectly in the puzzle. Cleary knows life is made up of moments and conveys life in just that way: a father teaching his son about edamame; a mishap with a chocolate bar that turns out to be life-changing. Even when Cam and Jack finally have it out, it’s grounded and feels real. It’s literally a man arguing with himself with the highest of stakes, and it’s charged and thrilling.

Despite the high stakes, the film is no thrill ride; it’s a considered drama that invests fully in Cam’s (and Jack’s) dilemma. Harris’ Poppy is no one-dimensional wife-and-nothing-more role, either — she feels like a partner in their life, and her trauma and its fallout feel earned. Harris even throws in a beautiful rendition of a well-chosen Prince song. Glenn Close, with the right notes of certainty and drive, plays the lead doctor shepherding this new procedure, and Awkwafina is charming and touching in a memorable supporting role.

The environments feel natural, believable. The film is gorgeously shot by Masanobu Takayanagi (“Spotlight,” “Warrior”) and, if you will, it’s intelligently designed on a budget by Annie Beauchamp (“On Becoming a God in Central Florida”) to meld the near future with human warmth and emotion.

This is one of two films this season called “Swan Song,” the other a comedy featuring veteran German performer Udo Kier. But this “Swan Song” belongs to Ali, who also produced. It’s a showcase for an artist with a broad and varied palette. The way he fully breathes life into two people in a sci-fi-tinged story makes it all the more exciting that he’ll be bringing his talents to the Marvel Cinematic Universe soon as the new “Blade.” In “Swan Song,” he lives in both drama and sci-fi worlds as he crafts a man coming to grips simultaneously with his own mortality and the dawn of something new for humanity.


'Swan Song'

Rated: R for language

Running time: 1 hour, 52 minutes

Playing: At the Landmark Westwood and streaming on Apple TV+ Dec. 17