Swan Song is one of those movies that is simply not one of those movies. This film is extraordinarily powerful and moving. At heart is an ethical and moral question, derived from biological experimentation, which seems just beyond the bounds of the possible yet somehow transcends science fiction. I’m not quite ready to decide where this stands in terms of both ethics and feasibility.
The practice of cloning is not new – for sheep – but for humans it remains a distant dream, or nightmare, depending on how you view creation and identity. Swan Song asks us to consider this: Is it okay to replace yourself with a clone without telling, let alone asking, those you interact most closely with? Is it okay to decide for your wife, in this case, that she would rather have a clone of you who will live on healthily rather than the actual you who is terminally ill? You make the choice out of love, sure. And self-sacrifice, deciding that’s what she would want. But is that your choice to make? And is it fair?
Mahershala Ali, Cameron the man and Jack the clone, sees the movie more about maximising the time you have as your best self.
“To be fully present with your people, your loved ones, your friends, and to really work to realise your full self, to be your full self, your best self.”
I’m surprised to see the focus here shifted away from the feelings of loved ones, but concern for them must be implicit.
Cameron Turner (Mahershala Ali), facing off against Jack, his other self
Bringing in a clone in this story, by the way, leaves you dying alone, for as long as you have left. And you have decided that your love for your wife is greater than the love she has for you, actual you, now. Given a choice herself, would she ever allow such a lonely death?
The clone is an exact copy of you physically and mentally. It has all your memories courtesy of a jazzed up, Vulcan style mind meld. The bit that may still be missing of course is the soul. That element is not included in the package of services provided by an unsettlingly calm doctor and her small team of sci-fi magicians.
So, suppose you opt to be copied. Is there any real difference between you and your clone? If not, the original ethical question becomes almost irrelevant. There are no implications in the choice – at least for your wife. You are merely swapping yourself out of your own life and only you will suffer.
Cameron and Poppy (Naomie Harris)
This is all too baffling for me to contemplate. And yet it seems like a scenario that could actually be happening, albeit in less existential ways, in our real-life, complex relationships. Making decisions for others, deciding to disappear out of someone’s life, softening the blow, avoiding pain for others, making hidden sacrifices. That happens every day. As long as it comes from the heart and it's done with the best of intentions, I’m okay with making choices for others and not being fully open with them. But secretly sending in a clone seems a step too far.
Withholding the truth may sometimes be for the best, but only as long as the person you hoodwink never finds out. Should that ever happen, the hurt would be unbearable, even more devastating than telling the truth in the first instance. And, having allowed a clone to take your place, you would never know. In Swan Song, there is a reliance on the truth never being discovered. But is that realistic? There must be a chance it will all go wrong. The movie thrives on the agony of suspense. We are left wondering if the secret will ever come out. In Swan Song 2 maybe. That would be heart-breaking beyond belief.
A few words on the cast. Mahershala Ali is doubly brilliant as Cameron and Jack. Naomie Harris shines as Poppy, the wife who Cameron both upgrades himself for and walks out on at the same time. Despite a devastating past, Poppy has the most wonderful smile ever. Glenn Close has a calming influence and doesn't seem to have any motive other than to pave the way for an alternative future. Not mad at all. But I so want to see her truly challenged in a sequel.
Poppy, the girl with on the train
A reflective Dr. Scott (Glenn Close)
The self-styled hero in Swan Song is in two minds. I have no such dilemma in gathering my thoughts. This movie is sensational. Full of suspense and risk, heartbreak and despair, love and joy. But beyond all the entertainment and the emotion, it serves a higher purpose. This brings us back to a desire for self-improvement and heightened awareness. As Naomie Harris says:
“It’s not just pure entertainment, it should be edifying in some way, and should hopefully stretch an audience in the way that they view life in some different way”.
Swan Song is likely to spark endless debates on the question of identity and the variations of the self. But for me, all this introspection comes second to an exploration of the nature of love and what we mean to others. This matters far more than what we make of ourselves.
© Eddie Hewitt 2022