An Unlikely Character Reveals the Film’s Biggest Lie

WARNING: The following contains major spoilers for Swan Song, streaming now on Apple TV.

Swan Song is a near future tale awash in seamless technology that interacts with humanity on a constant level in ways that seem as close as tomorrow and as far away as a century all at the same time. The movie captures the synergy of man and machine masterfully and is among the best at emulating that specific Black Mirror vibe. While the tech itself seems practically possible with a few more iterations of Moore's Law, the off handed ubiquitousness of its representations in daily life seem further away. One experimental advancement central to the film's narrative however seems as distant temporally as it does ethically.

Assiduously avoiding the label of cloning, a doctor and her small team invent a process where a person suffering from a terminal illness can transfer their consciousness to another body indistinguishable from their own, a process they call regeneration. At the heart of this process are frightening questions about individuality, the nature of the soul and ultimately the inclusion of these doppelgängers in the evolutionary reproductive ecosystem of humanity. The film though implies that all of these questions may be moot because the underlying premise may be false and the promise of an identical identity may be exactly the science fiction is appears to be, even within the fantastical future presented within the boundaries of the story.

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Cameron and Poppy meet on a train while she is conversing on the phone with her twin brother, someone who plays a singular role in her life as a loving and thoughtful pillar that she can depend upon. Through Cameron's memories the audience experiences not only the rich rapport the two siblings share with one another, but also their opinions about a controversial piece of technology that is making its way to market. While gathered at a sunlit table in their home, Cameron, Poppy and their young son Cory share a meal and laughter with Andre, Poppy's brother. Andre recounts an article he read recently that described the process of "regeneration" wherein a living being could download the entirety of their consciousness into a duplicate organic vessel that was identical to the original in every way, a well trod concept in speculative fiction but deployed with immense emotional heft throughout Swan Song.

Poppy scoffed at the notion initially because she had no faith in the technology but once she was convinced to approach it from a hypothetical standpoint and consider the ethical questions she was resolute in her response. If, and only if, it could be accomplished with total convincing deception, she would opt in for that solution to the death of a loved one without any hesitation. Cameron took note of her certainty though he himself deigned to weigh in with his own opinion and the context suggests this was long before he had any symptoms that might give him an inkling that his ultimate destiny was linked to this conversation. The audience later learns that in the film's chronological present, Andre has died and his passing devastated Poppy to the point of almost total seclusion from her family for an entire year. Her grief was so powerful that it threatened her marriage and scarred her mental health.

Poppy's reaction to Andre's death informs Cameron's choice when he decides to contact Doctor Jo Scott and her team about undertaking the regeneration process and she too confirms that the copy, who is referred to as Jack until the week long integration process is complete, is indistinguishable from Cameron in every way. Cameron spent a week at a remote facility undergoing the intake procedures but returned home for the last visit with his family before he would have to live out his few remaining days in isolation, but a violent seizure on his doorstep prevented him from doing so and necessitated Jack's early insertion into the home. Poppy and Cory were unaware of any change but their pet dog Ellington, lovingly referred to as Pig, barks at Jack incessantly. In the normal sequence of events Jack would not have engaged with the family until his memories of the week long assimilation process had been erased but because things progressed underneath emergency circumstances Jack was embedded without fully adopting his role as Cameron.

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The impact of this is evident on his face as Pig refuse to acknowledge him as the man he is pretending to be and it is also visible in the reaction of Doctor Scott. Jack is wearing contact lenses that act as video cameras and she is able to see everything he does from a special viewing room back at the compound. Her face is fairly inscrutable so it isn't clear if this failure to convince the dog of her replica's authenticity is a surprise or if it is an unwelcome reminder of an ongoing problem that she has not solved for as of yet. It is clear that she and her assistant, a technician known as Dalton who operates and supervises the mind melding portion of the program, have disagreements about how the experiment is progressing. Doctor Scott informed Cameron that he would be only the third person to have gone through the regeneration protocols so it is clear that the applications of the program are still in their fledgling stages.

Doctor Scott however does not share Pig's reaction with Cameron nor does she halt the program until more information can be collected to understand why the animal had such a negative reaction. There are also behavioral notes that gave Dalton pause, including Jack initiating visual blackouts as he deemed fit which violated the established parameters of his immersion within the family. Cameron shares these concerns and escapes from the compound to see for himself if his family is safe and when he arrives he observes that they all seem fine, but Pig is still uncomfortable around Jack. It's possible that because Jack hasn't forgotten that he is the duplicate as is prescribed that this is the reason Pig can detect his falseness. The film does not provide an example of their interaction once Jack is fully integrated and believes himself to be Cameron so the question is left somewhat unanswered.

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The film does make it clear however that Cameron dies at the compound while Jack absorbs his identity so that his family does not have to deal with the pain of his loss. Poppy's assertion that this is what she would have always wanted is never tested because a hypothetical can never really serve as a substitute for real life decisions, but it is one that she couldn't be consulted about if it were to serve the purpose it was designed for. The film also makes it clear that Cameron's creative vocation as a visual artist is not impeded by the process because Jack is able to produce in a way that his clients and partners find completely satisfying. However the central question about the nature of Jack seems implicated in Pig's responses to him. He is not Cameron and the process is detectable on some level even if it wouldn't show up in a medical test or behavioral analysis.

In the same way that an identical twin is not the same person as their sibling, regardless of the specific lived experiences that separate them, the regeneration process seems to fall short of its promise. Poppy may be blissful in her ignorance but there isn't any assurance that at some point whatever is detectable to Pig may reveal itself in some unpredictable way to others. Dalton's concerns seemed rooted in something real and there were glimpses of personality traits exhibited by Jack that did not seem to sync with what the audience came to expect from Cameron. With real life parallels of Elizabeth Holmes and Theranos, a founder whose company did not deliver on its advertised promises, Doctor Scott comes across as a greedy opportunist who is more interested in the success of her company than in the rehabilitative wellness offered and advertised by her controversial innovation.

To see man's best friend see through the deception, Swan Song is streaming now on Apple TV.

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Mark Millien (111 Articles Published)

Creator/writer of The Hidden Scribes and COVID39 podcasts. Film screener for the Austin Film Festival and holder of passionate opinions e.g. M>DC+(Wars-Sequels~GOAT)/( Game(Breaking(The Wire)Bad)of Thrones-2 last seasons)=FACTS. Raised by Dungeons and Dragons, judges people who liked "Signs", and solidly chicken on the which came first ideological spectrum.

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