A woman opts for a cloning procedure after she receives a terminal diagnosis, but once she recovers her attempts to have her clone decommissioned fail, leading to a court-mandated duel to the death.
Dual is set in a not-too-distant future where human cloning is an unremarkable procedure. The opening scenes show two clones (Divergent’s Theo James) fighting to the death on live television. You’ll have to wait a bit for this to make sense, but don’t let the graphically violent take on reality TV get you too excited.
Sarah (Gunpowder Milkshake‘s Karen Gillan) is an apathetic woman going through the motions; essentially shut-in and distant from everyone except her absent boyfriend (Beulah Koale), who mostly appears via iPad. Her world is rocked when she starts throwing up blood and she learns she’s dying from a rare and incurable illness… which still doesn’t elicit any emotional response.
That’s because, in this imagined future, you can simply replace yourself with a clone; an expensive procedure intended to ease the suffering of the loved ones you’d otherwise leave behind. Through some Inside No.9-esque video presentations and How-To guides, we learn about the world of clones slotting into our lives once we have moved on. This is the most effective idea presented in Dual. The image of a clone actively replacing a suicide victim will definitely stick with you.
Sarah’s clone starts to imprint on her, becoming her, only prettier, slimmer, younger, and healthier. She comes to despise her new clone, who infiltrates her family and creates bonds Sarah could only ever dream of, including stealing her boyfriend. Sarah looks at her clone and only sees an improved version of herself, which makes her equally sad, jealous, and bitter.
Only Sarah isn’t terminal and it looks like she’ll pull through, but now only one Sarah will be able to exist in life, so the other must be killed. For unexplored reasons, the only way to eliminate this issue is to engage in a court-mandated duel to the death. And if the clone wins, they take over every aspect of the original’s life.
The movie dedicates too much of its run time to Sarah’s training. Aaron Paul (El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie) plays Sarah’s supportive combat coach and delivers probably the most effective performance of a deadpan screenplay. With so much leading to this clone-on-clone combat, the end result is incredibly disappointing.
Dual is a fantastic high concept that wastes any potential for action and drama. It often feels like writer-director-producer Riley Stearns (The Art of Self-Defense) came up with a good concept and attached some themes, but failed to fully realise them. Dual offers a sharp, satirical exploration of morality and what means to be human, side-stepping any melodrama or horror.
There are hints of satire about how we engage in entertainment in the modern world, but it’s not fully explored. There’s also a Jungian undercurrent to feuding with your own clone, but any psychology is left for audiences to interpret for themselves. This film could have really pushed the difference between the two clones and amped up the emotions between them, even if that would derail the stilted pacing.
Dual should’ve leaned harder on the dystopian world which seems designed to torment Sarah, forcing her to jolt out of her slothful life. The problem is that there’s no one to root for because everyone is there to be disliked. It’s also hard to be shocked as too much is foreshadowed, including the state-sanctioned duel that the narrative centres itself around. The one scene where she breaks down in the car, which comes far too late, has more character development than the entire film.
Dual delivered with the dry, disconnected dialogue that is its filmmaker’s hallmark. His writing is often compared to Yorgos Lanthimos, but Gillan fails to make it seem as purposeful as Olivia Colman, Colin Farrell, or Rachel Weisz manage in The Lobster (2015) and The Favourite (2018). Her stiff performance is off-putting, becoming more and more irritating over the run time. Paul is the only actor whose dead stare and stilted delivery come across as purposeful.
It’s clear Dual wants to be funny and lean into the absurdity of the situation, but its caustic humour is too bleak and awkward to deliver genuine laughs. The writing and performances feel so detached from reality tht it’s hard to connect to. The flat declarations are just absurdity layered onto surrealism. Perhaps the tougher subject matter, which deals with suicide, terminal illness and mortality, is too sensitive to mock in the same way Art of Self-Defense satirised toxic masculinity.
Dual is a frustrating watch. It has so much going for it, and a concept that you will be itching to see explored further. There’s something unique about this world amongst the well-troped subgenre of doppelgangers and jealous clones, it’s a shame more isn’t done with the concept. The vomiting blood, the Hunger Games battle against ourselves, and general weirdness have hints of David Cronenberg (Crash), only delivered with an inexpressiveness that’s flatly earnest.
You will likely leave Dual angered that such a fantastic concept from a talented writer and engaging leading lady resulted in this film. The numbing finale is infuriating and too cynical for its own good, making the journey not worth the bother.
USA • FINLAND | 2022 | 94 MINUTES | 1.85:1 | COLOUR | ENGLISH
writer & director: Riley Stearns.
starring: Karen Gillan, Beulah Koale, Theo James & Aaron Paul.